How to Spot a Swatter
Dangerous hoax calls to cops have several clues
On Feb. 23, a police tactical team descended on a home in Riverside, California after receiving a call about a shooting. Except the report was a hoax — or swatting — targeting a teenager, the star of a viral video.
No one was harmed, and it was a rather minor story because of swatting’s regularity in the Internet age. In a swatting incident, a caller reports a false bomb threat, mass shooting, hostage situation or other emergency to 911, which provokes a heavily-armed SWAT team to raid the home of the unwitting victim.
Swatting has a long history with roots in online gaming, and is predictably dangerous. Last year, an Oklahoma man shot a police officer when cops responded to a phony bomb threat at the man’s home.
But there might be a way to prevent swatting in some cases. On Feb. 29, the website Public Intelligence, a non-profit that advocates free access to government documents, uploaded a list of techniques from New Jersey’s cybersecurity task force that police dispatchers should follow during a call.
It’s a sign that law enforcement is starting to adapt.
Swattings follow several patterns, according to the list from the New Jersey Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Cell.
“The swatting call is the only incoming call to report an active shooter or ongoing emergency situation,” the NJCCIC states. “If a shooting has occurred or an active shooter scenario is unfolding, multiple calls to dispatch from witnesses or victims are likely.”
Phoning in a fake threat with a personal phone will give the caller’s identity away, so pranksters often — if they’re not complete idiots — rely on spoofed Voice over Internet Protocol addresses or default Skype numbers. Not easy to track.
VoIP addresses cannot typically connect to 911, so the callers will try routing through a non-emergency line. Swatters sometimes distort their voices or communicate via text-to-speech programs.
Swatters also hire contractors to make the calls over the dark web, the vast, hidden parts of the Internet partially encrypted by services such as Tor. “Swatting calls are commonly conducted by foreign malicious actors with thick accents who are unfamiliar with the local areas they target,” the list adds.
There’s a mass shooting but the caller is the only one reporting it. Distorted voices. A camouflaged number connecting through a non-emergency line. The caller doesn’t know much about the location. None of these hints are evidence — by themselves — that a report is a hoax, but the NJCCIC suggests dispatchers quickly ask repeated follow-up questions to detect inconsistencies.
Sometimes, dispatchers may hear typing sounds coming from the other end of the line as the swatter looks up facts about the location. Details inspired by video games are a reoccurring theme. There may even be “records of gunshots or live firefights from video games or the Internet” to try and dupe the dispatcher.
“Swatting callers often refer to weapons commonly depicted in video games, such as an AR-15 assault rifle,” the list notes.
Obviously, these clues hardly add up to a dead giveaway. The caller mentions an AR-15? Though it may be unusual for a person to note the technical name of a weapon during what’s supposed to be a chaotic, life-or-death situation.
And these are, at best, preventative tactics once the swatter has already called in.
In a November feature for the New York Times Magazine, journalist Jason Fagone explained that swatting takes advantage of uncertainty. “Law enforcement and the public are still grappling with what SWAT teams are for and how they should be used, but the swatter knew exactly how to use them,” Fagone wrote.
Dispatchers must react carefully to suspected swattings. If they cast too much doubt on what might be a prank but isn’t, then people could die. But dispatching tactical teams immediately to every report of a mass shootings or bomb threat, regardless of how implausible, means pranksters will use it to their advantage.
In short, swattings exploit America’s fear — and frequency — of mass shootings and our reliance on militarized police to respond. And it tricks the police into becoming unwilling accomplices for trolls, stalkers and political crackpots.
And while preventing or catching a swatter is one thing, prosecuting one is another. Many of the perpetrators are minors, and filing a false police report is merely a misdemeanor in many jurisdictions.
In November 2015, Rep. Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat, proposed a bill which would make it a federal crime to transmit “false communications with the intent to create an emergency response,” according to the bill’s text.
Clark’s bill would impose a tiered set of penalties and jail sentences depending on the severity of the swatting, such as if someone is injured or killed.
Less than three months later, Clark’s home was swatted.