Swatting is the act of deceiving an emergency service (via such means as hoaxing an emergency services dispatcher) into sending a police and 9-1-1 emergency service response team to another person's address, based on the false reporting of a serious law enforcement emergency, such as a bomb threat, murder, hostage-taking or other alleged incident. The term derives from SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics), a specialized type of police unit in the United States and many other countries carrying military-style equipment such as door breaching weapons, submachine guns and assault rifles.
Swatting has been associated with online harassment campaigns, and episodes ranging from small events to large incidents, from a single fabricated police report meant to discredit an individual as a prank or personal vendetta to the deployment of bomb squads, heavily armed SWAT units and other police units and the concurrent evacuations of schools and businesses.
Swatting has been described as terrorism due to its potential to cause disruption, wasting resources and time of emergency services, divert attention from real emergencies and possibly cause a risk of injuries and psychological harm to the persons targeted and for the first responders. It also causes money and tax dollars to be wasted by the city or county when responding to a false report of a serious law enforcement emergency. Swatting is linked to the action of doxing, which is obtaining and broadcasting, often via the Internet, the address and details of an individual with an intent to harass or endanger them. Making false reports to emergency services is punishable by prison sentences in the U.S. and is a crime in many other countries.
Swatting has origins in prank calls to emergency services. Over the years, callers used increasingly sophisticated techniques to direct response units of particular types. In particular, attempts to have SWAT teams be dispatched to particular locations spawned the term 'swatting'. The term was used by the FBI as early as 2008, and has also entered into Oxford Dictionaries Online in 2015.
Caller ID spoofing, social engineering, TTY, prank calls and phone phreaking techniques may be variously combined by swatting perpetrators. 9-1-1 systems (including computer telephony systems and human operators) have been tricked by calls placed from cities hundreds of miles away from the location of the purported call, or even from other countries. The caller typically places a 9-1-1 call using a spoofed phone number (so as to hide the fraudulent caller's real location) with the goal of tricking emergency authorities into responding with a SWAT team to a fabricated emergency.
- United States – It can be prosecuted through federal criminal statutes.
- "Conspiracy to retaliate against a witness, victim or informant".
- "Conspiracy to commit access device fraud and unauthorized access of a protected computer".
- An accomplice may be found guilty of "conspiring to obstruct justice".
- In the State of California pranksters bear the "full cost" of the response which can range up to $10,000.
- On November 18, 2015, U.S. Representative Katherine Clark sponsored a bill called the 'Interstate Swatting Hoax Act of 2015', aimed at increasing the penalties for swatting, as well as making swatting a federal crime. On January 31, 2015, at around 10pm, Clark was swatted by an anonymous caller who claimed there was an active shooter in the home. Melrose Police, not a SWAT team, responded to the home, and left after determining the call was a hoax.
In 2009, a blind phreaker Matthew Weigman was caught with the help of a Verizon fraud investigator named Billy Smith. He pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy including "involvement in a swatting conspiracy" and attempting to retaliate against a witness. He was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison.
In 2012, CNN interviewed political commentator Erick Erickson to discuss an incident in which he had been the victim of swatting. A caller to 911 gave Erickson's address as his own and claimed:
I just shot my wife, so.... I don't think I could come down there.... She's dead, now.... I'm looking at her.... I'm going to shoot someone else, soon.— 911 caller
In 2013, a number of U.S. celebrities became the victims of swatting, including Sean Combs. In the past, there have been swatting incidents at the homes of Ashton Kutcher, Tom Cruise, Chris Brown, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Iggy Azalea, Jason Derulo, Snoop Dogg, Justin Bieber and Clint Eastwood.
In May 2014, a 16-year-old in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, was arrested for having made thirty fraudulent emergency calls across North America, leading to sixty charges "including uttering death threats, conveying false information with intent to alarm, public mischief and mischief to property". He had targeted a noted security expert, Brian Krebs.
On August 27, 2014, YouTube user Jordan Mathewson, known online as Kootra, live streamed a game of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive on Twitch. A viewer called 911 claiming that there was a shooting in the building with hostages. A SWAT team raided the office out of which Mathewson's gaming company, The Creatures LLC, was operating. Mathewson was thrown to the ground and searched as officers searched the room. The events were broadcast live on the internet, until law enforcement set the camera lens-down on Mathewson's desk. Videos of the swatting went viral, gaining over four million views on YouTube and being reported on news programs all over the world.
On September 11, 2014, Bukkit programmer Wesley "Wolvereness" Wolfe was the victim of a swatting incident. An unidentified Skype caller told police that Wolfe had shot his parents and was on a killing spree. Wolfe believed he was targeted in retaliation to his issuing of a DMCA takedown of CraftBukkit from the Bukkit repository.
On November 6, 2014, the home of an unnamed executive with Bungie, a developer of the Halo and Destiny franchises, was raided by local police after a call, purported to be from someone inside the house, said that there was a hostage situation at the residence. The caller had demanded a ransom of $20,000 and claimed they had planted explosives in the yard. After 45 minutes, police determined the call originated from a computer and not from the residence; they further stated that the perpetrator of the hoax could face a fine and one year in jail if apprehended.
On December 5, 2014, police in Coquitlam, British Columbia arrested a teenager using the pseudonym 'Obnoxious' who had committed at least 40 attempted and successful acts of swatting in several countries. The teenager, who historically targeted women he disliked online, used social engineering techniques and Skype tracking tools to obtain address details of victims from companies including Cox Communications and VoIP calling to mask his real location. He went so far as to livestream his swatting calls. The youth pleaded guilty to 23 crimes. A New York Times article on the case criticized Twitch for failing to block the user and his associates from the site.
On January 3, 2015, twenty Portland, Oregon, police officers were sent to the former home of Grace Lynn, a transgender woman. She stated that this was the culmination of months of online harassment from Gamergate supporters after she withdrew her support for the movement. The swatter, coming from Serbia, claimed to be not affiliated with GamerGate. Lynn said that she was alerted to the incident because she had proactively checked for online harassment daily, and she had defused the situation by contacting police.
On January 15, 2015, in Sentinel, Oklahoma, Washita County dispatchers received 911 calls from someone who identified himself as Dallas Horton and told dispatchers he had placed a bomb in a local preschool. Washita County Sheriff's Deputies and Sentinel Police Chief Louis Ross made forced entry into Horton's residence. Ross, who was wearing a bulletproof vest, was shot several times by Horton. Further investigation revealed that the calls did not originate from the home and led Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agents to believe Horton was unaware that it was law enforcement officers making entry. James Edward Holly confessed to investigators that he made the calls with two "nonfunctioning" phones because he was angry with Horton.
In May 2015, Zachary Lee Morgenstern, 19, of Cypress, Texas, was arrested after he made a number of hoax bomb threats and "swatting" calls in Minnesota, Ohio, and Massachusetts, including for two schools in Marshall, Minnesota. The police obtained his IP address from Twitter and Google. Morgenstern pleaded guilty to several federal crimes and in December 2015 was sentenced to 41 months in prison.
In August 2015, the founder of the website Mumsnet was the target of a swatting, which resulted in the deployment of a London Metropolitan Police Service armed response unit attending her home address. The hoax was concurrent with a denial-of-service attack on the Mumsnet website and threats of a swatting attack.
On April 28, 2017, Twitch user Paul Denino (pseudonym "Ice Poseidon") was live streaming before boarding an American Airlines flight. After the plane had landed, law enforcement showed up on the tarmac and removed Denino and one other person from the plane. An anonymous caller claimed that Denino had a bomb when he did not.
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- 18 U.S.C. § 371
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- SWATting, a Deadly Political Game
- Guilty Plea: Phone Phreaks Use Caller-ID Spoofing to Get Foes Raided By SWAT
- Teenager Receiving Life In Prison For ‘SWATTING’ Gamer Is A Satirical Hoax Which Stirred Social Media
- The Psychology of Swatting