What are police doing to prevent swatting?
Anonymous harassers are sending real police teams to private homes and potentially endangering lives. What are the authorities doing to stop this from happening?
Almost 60,000 people were watching Joshua Peters at his home when his mother knocked on the door to tell him that a SWAT team had arrived.
Mr. Peters, a Minnesota gamer who goes by the handle Koopatroopa787, was streaming his session of RuneScape on the live-streaming site Twitch when the police showed up. He “returned 15 minutes later, visibly shaken and on the verge of tears, to confirm to the remaining viewers that he had been ‘Swatted,’” The Guardian reported.
No one was hurt during the raid, but at the end of his live stream session, an emotional Peters told his attackers – whose identities and motives are still unidentified – to stay away from his family.
“I had police point a gun at my little brothers because of you,” he said. “They could have been shot. They could have died. Because you chose to swat my stream.”
“Your gripe is with me,” he added, “but do not involve my family in this. They don’t deserve it.”
“Swatting” – calling 911 with details of a serious crime so that an armed police response is sent to a target’s home – has become an increasingly popular harassment tactic. While little research has been done on those who engage in swatting, attackers typically do it to make a public statement, to elevate their standing in a group, or to exact revenge, says John Grohol, an expert on technology and human behavior and founder of the website Psych Central.
“It’s an extreme way to get back at someone,” Dr. Grohol says.
Most swatting victims are people of some stature: Celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Ashton Kutcher, and Justin Bieber have all been targeted, as have journalist Brian Krebs and Denver gamer Jordan Matthewson.
In October, Rob Richards, another gamer, was forced out of his New Jersey home and onto the street with his entire family after police responded to a 911 caller who reported violence at the Richards’ address.
"My mom and dad got into an argument and it got physical," NBC Philadelphia quoted the caller saying. "I took the gun and I shot my dad."
The fake crime led to some very real consequences, not least of which was wasted time and taxpayer dollars for the three hour-long investigation that confirmed the call was a hoax. A month later, New Jersey State Assemblyman Paul Moriarty introduced a introduced a bill to increase the penalty for false public alarms to a prison term of three to five years, $150,000 fine, or both.
“We need a more severe law to deal with this kind of sick and disturbing activity,” Mr. Moriarty told NBC Philadelphia.
Jersey isn’t the only place to take the crime seriously. In 2013, a 12-year-old boy was prosecuted in Southern California for calling emergency personnel to Mr. Kutcher’s and Mr. Bieber’s homes in two separate occasions.
More recently, an Illinois man was arrested in Las Vegas for calling in a SWAT team to a suburban Nevada home by reporting a fake murder. Illinois State’s Attorney James Glasgow intends to craft legislation that would make swatting a felony, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
The FBI first warned against swatting in 2008, describing callers who “tell tales of hostages about to be executed or bombs about to go off.” Since then, the Bureau has arrested a number of hackers on swatting charges, including Matthew Weigman, a phone hacker, who is in the middle of serving 11 years in federal prison.
Most swatting cases are now handled by local authorities, and the FBI suggests that potential targets inform local police about any swatting threats they may receive online. According to the Bureau’s blog:
Such threats typically come from the online gaming community, where competitors can play and interact anonymously. With a report on file, if a 9-1-1 incident does occur at your home, the police will be aware that it could be a hoax.
“I would be very clear: These are not pranks, these are crimes,” Grohol says. “They are as serious as you can get.”