David Hogg, a survivor of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida in February, is now the most recent victim of a dangerous and increasingly popular practice called “swatting,” which involves reporting a fake emergency at the home of the victim in an effort to send a SWAT team to barge in on them.
Fortunately, Hogg was visiting Washington DC with his mother to accept the RFK Human Rights award at the time, and no one got hurt.
But the same cannot be said for all cases.
Early this year, a Los Angeles man was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter after swatting Andrew Finch – a Wichita father-of-two and video game streamer with whom he got into a dispute with over a $1.50 bet in “Call of Duty” – who was killed by law enforcement as a result of the “prank.”
The swatter, Tyler Raj Barriss, says he had personally called in false emergencies on more than a hundred people before being arrested.
Here’s everything you need to know about this disturbing trend:
First, let’s talk about exactly what happens when a person gets “swatted.”
Imagine you’re at home playing a video game, broadcasting your gameplay online for your followers to watch on the video-streaming site Twitch. Without warning, the door to your room is busted open and SWAT officers are screaming at you to put your hands up and get on the ground – all while thousands of people online get a front-row seat to the action, thanks to your computer’s webcam.
This is what happens during a “swatting,” where cybercriminals call in a serious crime – such as a hostage situation or shooter on the loose – in the hopes of unleashing a SWAT team on an unsuspecting person.
Cybercriminals can use a variety of technical tricks to mask their identities or to make it appear as if the prank call to police originated at the residence of the unsuspecting victim. Police, with no other choice than to react to the severity of the crime being described, often send out SWAT teams, bomb squads, and other emergency services such as fire trucks and ambulances.
In its earliest occurrences, swatting almost always targeted video game live-streamers.
“Uh oh, this isn’t good,” a gamer named Jordan Mathewson, who streams on Twitch under the name “Kootra,” said to the camera during a live stream back in 2014. “They’re clearing rooms. What in the world? I think we’re getting swatted.”
Police stormed in within seconds, and Mathewson’s viewers and fans could only watch as he was handcuffed, searched, and questioned.
The police released Mathewson from custody after realizing they had been duped, but it is hardly a harmless prank. Taxpayer dollars are wasted when the police respond to hoaxes, and the buildings, including schools, near Mathewson’s address were placed on lockdown because of the threat.
While most swatting attempts target gamers who broadcast their gameplay on live-streaming services such as Twitch, celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Bieber have all been “swatted” as well.
But swatting celebrities does not allow the public to watch the events play out in real time, and that is part of the reason gamers with thousands of spectators are often viewed as attractive targets.
If one of the spectators of a streaming session becomes annoyed (or apparently even just bored) with the person streaming, the anonymous viewer can try to dig up identifying information on the address of the streamer, usually by capturing the IP address of the person’s computer.
Despite this trend being well-documented, there isn’t much that law enforcement can do to prevent it from happening.
The FBI has been aware of swatting since 2008, but the police can do little other than respond appropriately when they receive such a serious-sounding call.
For now, gamers are doing everything they can to ensure they do not leak any information on their location or identity to their Twitch spectators, such as masking their IP address by establishing a virtual private network (VPN).
To get a sense of exactly how terrifying it can be to get swatted, you can watch one of the many swatting compilations below (just a heads up: there’s some strong language).