Could you be the victim of “swatting”?
This is part I of a series of articles on “swatting”. What is swatting? Swatting is a new form of pranking, but taken to a dangerous level. The term is derived from the law enforcement unit “SWAT” (Special Weapons And Tactics), and typically involves where the prankster or swatter contacts an emergency service, such as phoning 911, and reporting a fictitious threat, such as a bomb threat, murder, hostage situation, or a report that an individual is allegedly suicidal or homicidal.
In a 2015 incident, numerous 911 calls were made in Sentinel, Oklahoma by someone who identified himself as Dallas Horton, and told dispatchers that he had placed a bomb in a local preschool. County Sheriff Deputies made their entry into Horton’s residence. The police chief was shot multiple times by Horton, but fortunately was wearing a bulletproof vest. Later investigation revealed that the calls did not originate from the Horton residence, and later another individual confessed that he had made the calls because he was angry with Horton.
In 2019, a California man was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a fatal 2017 swatting. In that incident, a police officer in Wichita, Kansas shot a civilian, who later died. A Wichita newspaper investigated and surmised that the deceased was the unintended victim of a swatting, after two Call of Duty video gamers got into a heated argument over a $1.50 bet; the Los Angeles police arrested a 25-year-old serial swatter by the name of Tyler Barriss, who was known online as “SWAUTISTIC”.
In 2020, a 60-year-old man in Tennessee died of a heart attack after police responded to false reports of a woman having been killed at his house. The swatting was organized in an attempt to force the man to give up his Twitter Username. The swatter was sentenced to 5 years in prison for the swatting and ordered to pay a $250,000 fine.
A number of celebrities have been victims of swatting, including Ashton Kutcher, Tom Cruise, Chris Brown, Iggy Azalea, Snoop Dogg, Justin Bieber, and Clint Eastwood.
One of the developing problems with swatting, is that it is often carried out by tech-savvy individuals, such as members of online messages boards, gamers, hackers, and the like. The perpetrator may be swatting their target, is what they believe to be a harmless prank, or more seriously, as an act of revenge. Callers sometime use “spoofing” technology to make it look as though the call is coming from in the victim’s home, or at the very least to disguise it is coming from the swatter. In addition to “spoofing”, callers can use social engineering, TTY technology, and phone “phreaking” has been used by various swatting perpetrators. 911 systems (including both computers and human operators) have been tricked by calls placed from cities hundreds of miles from the actual location of the purported caller, or even from other countries.
Swatting cases are hard to prosecute. There aren’t any federal anti-swatting laws. A bill aimed at combating swatting was introduced in Congress, but almost immediately thereafter, the Congresswoman who introduced the legislation was swatted herself, and the bill has remained in committee review since that time.
Another thing making prosecution difficult is that the swatters are often juveniles who thought of it as a prank or joke, making it difficult to prove intent to cause harm.
Some communities have taken action to stop or minimize swatting. In 2018, the Seattle Police Department took active steps to deal with the situation, including educating 911 dispatchers to identify potential swatting calls, ensuring that responding police officers are aware of the potential for a hoax situation, and creating an opt in registry for people who feel they might become victims of swatting.
Look for more information in Part II, next month.
 Phreaking is a slang term coined to describe the activity of people who experiment with telecommunication systems; the term was coined to study both those people legitimately interested in advancing telephone or telecommunication technology, but also those who wish to manipulate it for less reputable purposes.