The practice of “swatting,” in which a prankster calls police and invents a fake scenario so that a SWAT team will swarm a residence, has been around since at least 2008.
Swatters use internet calling services, number-spoofing apps, and disposable cell phones to disguise their locations. They call 911, claim that they have a bomb, are holding hostages, or have committed murder — and then sit back and wait as the team descends on their victim’s home with guns drawn.
But the consequences of swatting can be serious: It can lead to injury, property damage — and even deaths.
Swatting started among online gamers who would make the prank calls during such videogames as Call of Duty, and watch their victims freak out as they answered the door.
But the practice is becoming more common among people who are just seeking revenge, are angry, or are simply bored. Swatting has also hit Hollywood hard — and celebrities including Selena Gomez, Rihanna, and Justin Beiber have been victims.
In Wichita, Kansas, a swatting incident ended in a fatality on December 28, 2017, when police received a phone call from a man claiming he had shot his father during a dispute. The caller said that he was holding the rest of his family hostage while threatening to burn the house down.
After arriving at the residence, police shot and killed “suspect” Andrew Finch on his front porch, whom they later discovered was a victim of a hoax that they believe began as an online dispute between two gamers. Police arrested 25-year-old Tyler Barriss, the man that they believe is behind the phone call.
In 2009, the FBI tracked down one of the first “serial swatters,” who was identified as 19-year-old Matthew Weigman. Investigators claimed that Weigman and nine other coconspirators used various scams to impersonate telecommunication employees and then used the data they collected on their victims to carry out dozens of swatting incidents between 2004 and 2009. Weigman was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison.
In January 2017, a Maryland man and his UK accomplice were indicted by a federal grand jury in Baltimore on charges related to a scheme to provide false information to cause an emergency services.
Zachary Lee, 25, and 19-year-old Robert Walker McDaid face a maximum sentence of five years in prison for the conspiracy, a maximum of 20 years in prison for false information and hoax, and a mandatory two years in prison for aggravated identity theft related to a swatting call.
In February 2015, Lee messaged McDaid using an internet telephone service and said, “I have someone I need sw@tted,” according to the indictment. Lee then provided McDaid with the address of the victim, and prosecutors say that McDaid, Lee, and another coconspirator called the Maryland Coordination and Analysis Center’s (MCAC) Terrorism Hotline.
The caller said he had a loaded gun, several bags of plastic explosives, and three hostages — whom he threatened to start executing in 15 minutes if $15,000 in cash was not delivered to the victim’s address. A Howard County Police Department Tactical team responded, and ultimately shot the innocent victim with rubber bullets in the chest and face.
As swatting incidents become more common, authorities are looking for new ways to combat them. Police describe swatting as terrorism due to its potential to cause disruption. It also wastes money and diverts emergency services from people who actually need help.
The extreme danger of swatting is intensified by the increased militarization of police departments in the United States, which dispatches teams of heavily armed officers into what they believe to be life-or-death situations.
In the Finch case in December 2017, police claim that they told Finch to put his hands in the air, and they shot him when he instead reached for his waist. Finch’s family has demanded that the police officer who killed him be criminally charged for his death.
In a letter to the Mayor, his mother, Lisa Finch, also asked that officials return items including the front door, a computer, two cellphones and a video game that were seized from the family’s home. The family also wants information on the protocol and training for officers as it relates to “swatting” calls, according to NBC News.
Making false reports to emergency services is a criminal offense, and in many states, lawmakers are attempting to make swatting a federal crime. In California, for instance, swatters bear the “full cost” of the response, which can range up to $10,000.
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Main photo: SWAT team photo [Wikimedia Commons]