What happens when online harassment crosses the digital divide? For several years now, the practice of swatting has been on the rise, and featured in news stories the world over. What exactly does the practice entail? What are the legal consequences of swatting, and what kind of damage has been inflicted upon those who have fallen victim to it?
Sadly, swatting is on the rise. False reports designed to trigger SWAT team deployments have doubled since 2011. What can we do to prevent, or at least protect ourselves from the practice? In this article, we’ll explore the creeping threat of swatting, it’s real life consequences and the damaging secondary impact it can have in terms of using up emergency response teams valuable resources.
What Is Swatting?
Swatting is a harassment technique designed to endanger, scare, and inconvenience its victims. The practice involves the placing of hoax calls reporting hostage or firearms related emergencies at a residence, triggering armed SWAT response teams to descend upon the property in question. Often, swatting is an escalation of smaller scale residential harassment tactics, for example, placing large, cash only pizza orders to be delivered to an unsuspecting person’s home address, or signing them up to controversial or embarrassing mailing lists.
The origins of swatting lie in the practice of doxxing. Ultimately it's the exposure of residential or or private addresses that make the victims so vulnerable to an attack. With the perpetrators able to commit the act from anywhere in the world, swatting can be incredibly shocking, with no prior warning, or often even a conscious interaction with the individual who has instigated the attack. The sudden and highly invasive nature of swatting, taking place in our most personal, seemingly protected spaces, makes the practice all the more distressing.
A trend that’s been observed over recent years is the rise in attacks on residences where livestreaming is underway. This adds a new dimension to swatting, as the instigators can witness the chaotic consequences of their actions in real time. Because of this, swatting is commonly associated with the world of competitive online gaming.
It should be noted that although swatting is most commonly associated with residential attacks, businesses or public attractions can also be targeted, as in the case of Space Mountain.
Fake Calls – Real Consequences: Notable Examples Of Swatting
Let’s examine a few examples of swatting and the motivations behind various types of attack.
Political or Racially Motivated Swatting
In August 2020, a hoax caller made a 911 call to the LAPD, claiming to be holding hostages at the home of a prominent Black Lives Matter leader, Melina Abdullah. A response team was dispatched and quickly surrounded the house. Ms Abdullah began live streaming on Instagram, reporting the situation and expressing her confusion and fear for her children, who were in the house with her.
Many celebrities have been victims of swatting, with the guarantee of prolific news coverage doubtless encouraging on attackers who are looking for the thrill of causing high profile chaos. The practice seemed to be becoming something worryingly close to a craze at one point, with police called to the homes of Sean Combs, Justin Timberlake and Rihanna in a single week in 2013. When Tom Cruise’s Beverly Hills home was falsely reported as the site of an armed robbery, the Beverly Hills Police Department reported that half of its emergency resources had been occupied with the swatting attack.
Revenge, Extortion, and Bullying
Sometimes, swatting can simply be a petty attack made out of spite or jealousy. As an intimidation tactic, it can be used to pressure and bully an individual. A tragic example of this form of swatting came in 2021, when a Tennessee man, who had already been subjected to harassing phone calls by an individual intent on acquiring a Twitter handle that he had already registered. When armed police officers arrived at his house, the 60-year-old victim suffered a heart attack and died.
What Are The Legal Implications Of Swatting?
Swatting is an offense, and is dealt with in various ways depending upon the local authority. In the United States, swatters can be prosecuted through an array of federal criminal statutes, including:
- "Conspiracy to retaliate against a witness, victim or informant" (18 U.S. Code § 1513 - Retaliating against a witness, victim, or an informant)
- "Conspiracy to commit access device fraud and unauthorized access of a protected computer" 18 U.S. Code § 1030 - Fraud and related activity in connection with computers
- An accomplice may be found guilty of "conspiring to obstruct justice" 18 U.S. Code § 371 - Conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud United States
- Even on a State level, in the State of California, swatters abusing rapid response and law enforcement resources must bear the “full cost” - which may amount up to $10,000.
Although harder to establish without proper discovery and evidence, Canadian law can charge individuals with the following misdemeanors:
- Uttering death threats
- Conveying false information with intent to alarm, public mischief
- Mischief to property
When it comes to charging swatters, there’s a lot to consider – from the implications of wasting emergency resources through to the very real danger of damage to property, or even injury and loss of life.
Legislation has evolved in line with the emergence of swatting. In 2015, a bill was introduced that would make swatting a federal crime and increase penalties. In 2018, a bill was introduced to Congress that would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to “provide enhanced penalties” for swatting, and demand the swatting reimburse expenses incurred.
Unfortunately, owing to the nature of these offenses, a great deal of difficulty can be observed when trying to identify and unmask the perpetrators. When placing a hoax call, swatters will typically lean upon caller ID spoofing (where deliberately falsified information is transmitted to the caller ID display to disguise identity) of the use of teletypewriter (TTY) relay.
Regardless of this, prosecutions can be and are achieved, with some significant sentences of up to 20 years being attributed in recent times.
How Can Swatting Attacks Be Prevented?
Swatting goes hand in hand with doxxing. Without access to your private address information, anonymous swatters cannot undergo their campaigns of harassment. So, in the first instance, avoid being doxxed by practicing exemplary care when it comes to revealing any data that could lead to your home address being exposed.
This might include hiding your IP address and using a proxy/VPN for an additional layer of privacy.
Be ready to capture digital evidence that may lead to the perpetrator being discovered. Capturing evidence of doxxing in advance of a swatting attack may prove helpful, as can content from livestream chat rooms, social media threads, comments, or posts where the event has been discussed or planned.
In order to capture this kind of evidence, speed is of paramount importance. With content easily deleted, modified or reattributed, it is important to collect data quickly and efficiently, preserving it in a manner that will stand up to the rigours of court when provided as evidence.
WebPreserver offers the ability to capture online evidence in a couple of clicks. Comments and replies can be auto-expanded, saving you crucial time as you act to collect incriminating data before it disappears forever. Critically, WebPreserver generates authenticated evidence that will stand up in court, placing a 256-bit digital signature and timestamps on all captured files, in addition to a range of other authentication and security features.
Swatting: Hope For The Best, Prepare For The Worst.
Swatting represents a rare but potentially devastating form of harassment – and thanks to the “copycat” effect that widespread online coverage provides, it's a growing problem. As a result, it’s important to maintain awareness of and proactively prevent swatting wherever possible.
Hopefully, with legal consequences also starting to scale up, and some high profile prosecutions leading to long jail sentences, this irresponsible and highly dangerous practice will start to subside. But until then, make sure you’re ready for anything, with WebPreserver.
Want to learn how you can collect online evidence of swatting, or any other online attack? Have a look at our Online Investigation Guide.