What Is Swatting? How to Prevent Swatting in 2024
Swatting is a malicious act involving false reports to emergency services about a crime or emergency at someone else's address. The term "swatting" comes from such false reports, often leading to a SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team being dispatched to the location.
Over the years, swatting incidents commonly affected celebrities, public figures, content creators, and gamers. While many offenders believe it to be a simple prank, swatting poses serious risks, including the potential for physical harm or even loss of life. It wastes valuable resources and diverts emergency responders from genuine emergencies, so it’s also a threat to public safety.
My team and I compiled a list of tips on protecting yourself from swatting. I also thoroughly examined the intricate details of swatting, including its motivations and what to do in a swatting situation. Following these practices can fortify your online security and reduce the risk of swatting and other cyber threats.
How Swatting Works?
Swatting involves a series of steps carried out by the perpetrator. It begins with selecting a target, often a public figure or streamer, followed by gathering personal information about the victim, like their name, address, and contact information.
This type of abuse doesn’t necessarily need to be linked to the individual’s home address. It might also target popular areas where many people can be affected — such as schools, shopping malls, airports, government buildings, hospitals, and other high-profile locations.
Once prepared, swatters conceal their identity using anonymous communication channels. They may use caller ID spoofing to make it appear that the emergency call originates from the victim's location, increasing the likelihood of a significant response from law enforcement.
The swatter contacts emergency services, such as the police or 911, and fabricates a serious crime or emergency situation at the victim's address. They may claim an active shooter, hostage situation, bomb threat, or other high-risk incidents to prompt law enforcement's swift and forceful response.
As a result of the false report, law enforcement swiftly responds by deploying armed SWAT teams to the targeted location. The authorities treat the situation as genuine, leading to anyone present at the address being confronted by the unexpected and potentially dangerous police response.
The targeted individuals, including their family members and bystanders, may suffer from extreme fear, stress, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the incident. The emotional toll can be long-lasting and may require professional support to overcome.
Why Is Swatting Possible?
Swatting is made possible by various factors, including technological loopholes and human vulnerabilities. Here are some key elements that contribute to the occurrence of swatting:
|Caller ID spoofing
Swatters can manipulate their caller ID information to make it appear that the emergency call originates from a different phone number or location. This technique makes it challenging for authorities to identify the true source of the call.
|Anonymous communication channels
Swatters often utilize anonymous online platforms or communication services to make their false reports. These platforms allow swatters to conceal their identities, making it difficult for law enforcement to trace their activities.
|Online information gathering and doxing
Swatters gather personal information about their victims from various sources, such as hacking personal social media, online directories, or publicly available databases.
The emergency response systems and protocols may have vulnerabilities that swatters can exploit. For example, flaws in the emergency call handling process or inadequate authentication procedures can be used to deceive emergency services.
Emergency services are often required to respond swiftly to reports of serious incidents. In some cases, there may be a delay in verifying the accuracy of the reported information due to the situation's urgency. Swatters take advantage of this window of time to create chaos and confusion.
Most devices allow you to activate location services on your computers, gaming consoles, and smartphones letting your devices access your location to offer personalized experiences. However, this feature can also make your location visible to others, potentially exposing your home address.
Every internet user is assigned a unique IP (Internet Protocol) address for their personal device and home or work network. While the IP address should remain private, attackers can find ways to discover it, potentially revealing additional personal details.
Motivations Behind Swatting
There are various motivations behind swatting, but several common factors contribute to this dangerous and malicious activity. Here are some of the main motivations:
- Revenge or harassment. Swatters may target individuals they hold grudges against, seeking to exact revenge or cause distress. They may be motivated by personal disputes, online conflicts, or a desire to intimidate and humiliate their victims. For example, Congresswoman Katherine Clark became the target of swatting 3 months after introducing the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act.
- Attention-seeking. Some individuals engage in swatting to gain attention and notoriety. They derive a sense of power or thrill from the chaos and disruption caused by their false reports, and they will seek recognition and validation for their acts from online communities.
- Prank or entertainment. Swatting may be seen as a twisted form of entertainment for some individuals. They consider it amusing or entertaining to witness the exaggerated response of law enforcement and the ensuing confusion and panic.
- Online trolling or bullying. Swatters may engage in this behavior as an extension of their online trolling or bullying activities. They use swatting to escalate the harassment and intimidation they inflict on their victims. For example, that happened to the leader of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, Melina Abdullah, when an unknown 911 caller claimed to be holding hostages at her house.
- Impersonation or manipulation. In some cases, swatters may pose as someone else, such as a rival or an individual with a grudge against the victim. The aim is to manipulate law enforcement into believing the false report originated from the person the swatter impersonated, further complicating the situation.
Examples of Swatting Incidents
Swatting is a dangerous and illegal act with real-life ramifications. These examples highlight the severe consequences of swatting, including diverting law enforcement resources from genuine emergencies, injuries, and even loss of life.
Swatting in Gaming
2017 Wichita swatting. A dispute between two players occurred while playing the online game Call of Duty: WWII. One player, Viner, contacted Tyler Barriss, a known "swatter" with a history of making false emergency calls. Viner asked Barriss to swat the other player’s address as an act of revenge. When the police arrived at the location, Andrew Finch, a man with no connection to the gaming dispute, answered the door. Due to a misunderstanding, an officer shot and killed him.
League of Legends terror. A teenage hacker from Canada had a disturbing pattern of targeting women who rejected his advances or friend requests in the popular online game League of Legends. One woman from Arizona became a particular focus of his attention. In a swatting incident, the police stormed into her home, pointing guns at her father and brother. In 2015, the minor admitted guilt to 23 charges related to his swatting and harassment campaign. As a result, he received a jail sentence of 16 months.
Streamers Who Get Swatted
Jordan Mathewson (Kootra). A popular YouTuber and streamer, Jordan Mathewson (known as Kootra), was swatted during a live stream on Twitch. The SWAT team raided the office where he was streaming, causing panic and confusion among him and his coworkers.
xQc. In 2020, the famous Twitch broadcaster xQc (Félix Lengyel) was swatted while streaming. Police were dispatched to his residence after a false report was made, claiming that someone had been shot at the location. Fortunately, xQc was unharmed, but the swatting incident forced him to move out of his home.
Ludwig. Ludwig Anders Ahgren, known as Ludwig, is a famous Twitch and YouTube streamer. He got swatted several times — once, he was targeted in a swatting incident while broadcasting a chess tournament to his audience. During the incident, Los Angeles police officers entered Ludwig's home with their weapons drawn, which was captured on the stream.
Adin Ross. A similar story happened to Twitch star, Adin. His viewers were able to see police enter his room with weapons drawn. Later, he confronted the man behind the swatting attempt, who claimed to have done because Adin had missed his Discord message.
Celebrities Who Have Been Swatted
Paris Hilton. In 2013, celebrity socialite Paris Hilton fell victim to a swatting incident. A prank caller falsely reported a home invasion at her Los Angeles residence, leading to a massive police response. Hilton was not at home during the incident, but it caused significant disruption to law enforcement.
Miley Cyrus. Miley Cyrus experienced a swatting incident in 2012, where a false report claimed an intruder with a gun was inside her home. Police responded with SWAT teams and helicopters, but no threat was found.
Swatting incidents are difficult to be measured due to underreporting. However, it's widely acknowledged that swatting has been a persistent problem in recent years. Reports suggest swatting incidents have increased, particularly within the gaming and online streaming communities.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, swatting cases in the US have significantly increased. The estimated swatting incidents surged from 400 in 2011 to over 1,000 cases in 2019. This rise highlights the growing prevalence and concern surrounding swatting.
There also have been reports of swatting sprees terrorizing schools across the US. For example, 16 states collectively suffered more than 90 false reports of school shooters during three weeks in September 2022.
Swatting is also expensive to the taxpayers — Lieutenant Aaron Springer estimated that the swatting incident in Rochester cost up to $15,000. In Denver, a 2015 swatting cost law enforcement $25,000, and a 2014 incident in Long Beach is estimated to have cost $100,000.
How to Prevent Swatting
Educating yourself and raising awareness about swatting and its potential consequences can help prevent it. If you want to avoid swatting incidents, consider the following:
- Protect your personal information. Be cautious about sharing personal details online, such as your address, phone number, or other sensitive information. Regularly review your privacy settings on social media platforms and limit the visibility of your private data. Install a web application firewall to prevent spoofing and SQL (Structured Query Language) injection attacks.
- Use two-factor authentication. Enable 2FA for your online accounts whenever possible. This adds an extra layer of security by requiring a verification code in addition to your password, making it more difficult for someone to impersonate you. There are online tools that let you check your password strength.
- Notify local law enforcement. If you have reason to believe that you may be targeted for swatting, contact your local police department and inform them about the situation. Provide them with relevant information and ask for their guidance on how to handle such incidents. For example, Seattle's police department created a "swatting registry." It’s a list of names and addresses of people who self-report that they could be at risk for a swatting attack, so the police know to investigate before sending an armed response.
- Stay vigilant. Be cautious about unusual or unexpected calls, emails, or messages claiming to be from authorities or popular services. Verify the authenticity of such communications through official channels before providing any personal information or taking action.
- Use voice chats carefully. Be cautious about the personal information you disclose when using voice chat platforms. Avoid sharing specific details about your location, routines, or personal life that can be used to identify or locate you offline. This also applies to gaming-focused chats, as swatting incidents often occur in gaming communities.
What to Do if You Get Swatted
If you find yourself in a swatting situation, it's crucial to stay calm and take specific steps to ensure your safety and assist law enforcement.
- Stay calm and follow instructions. The first and most important step is to stay calm and composed. It can be highly stressful and frightening, but maintaining a calm demeanor is crucial. Listen carefully to the instructions given by law enforcement and follow them precisely. Avoid any sudden movements or actions that could be misinterpreted as a threat.
- Communicate and inform. If you can communicate with the officers, calmly tell them that you suspect you are a victim of swatting. Provide any relevant information that might help them understand the situation better. It's essential to convey your cooperation and willingness to assist them in resolving the situation safely.
- Avoid confrontations and resistance. It is essential to avoid arguments with law enforcement. Cooperate fully with their instructions, even if you believe they are mistaken. Resisting or challenging their authority can escalate the situation and potentially put yourself and others at risk. Focus on following their guidance to ensure everyone's safety.
- Document and report the incident. After the incident has been resolved, document the details of what occurred. Include the date, time, officers' names, and other relevant information. This documentation can be helpful for future reference, legal purposes, or when reporting the incident to your local police department. This step is crucial, as it helps authorities to investigate and take appropriate action against the perpetrators.
Remember, swatting is a serious crime, and holding responsible individuals accountable is vital. Cooperate with law enforcement and report incidents to prosecute offenders and prevent further swatting attempts.
FAQs on Swatting
Is swatting a felony?
Yes, swatting is generally considered a felony. It is a serious crime with significant penalties, including imprisonment for a year or more. Swatting is regarded as a severe offense due to the potential harm to individuals, risk to public safety, and resource wastage. Classification and penalties vary by jurisdiction and the circumstances of the incident.
What is the punishment for swatting?
The punishment for swatting varies depending on the specific circumstances of the incident. That said, swatting is considered a serious crime, and the penalties can include substantial fines, imprisonment, probation, community service, or a combination of these.
The severity of the punishment is typically determined by factors such as the extent of harm caused, the individual's criminal history, and the laws of the jurisdiction where the offense occurred.
How can swatting happen so frequently?
There are several contributing factors. Personal information accessibility, technology vulnerabilities, social engineering tactics, and lack of awareness contribute to the problem. However, the primary reason for swatting incidents is the anonymity afforded by online communication channels.
Swatters have even found a way to exploit teletypewriter (TTY) relay services, which are meant to assist deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals by converting their text messages into voice calls for a third party. These services are designed to ensure the confidentiality of calls and callers. Unfortunately, swatters have discovered that TTY services can add an extra level of anonymity to their swatting activities, making it more challenging for authorities to apprehend them.
Efforts are underway to address these factors through improved technology, public awareness, legislation, and emergency response protocols.
Can I get swatted on Twitch, YouTube, or Twitter?
Swatting can occur on all platforms, but the risk varies. Live streaming platforms carry higher risks due to their live nature and personal information visibility. Social media platforms have a lower risk, but sharing personal details on such services increases your vulnerability. Practice online safety, keep personal information private, and report suspicious activities, as swatting can occur to anyone, regardless of the online platforms they may or may not use.
Is doxing different from swatting?
Yes, they’re different. Doxing involves publicly revealing private information about an individual without consent while swatting entails making false emergency reports to provoke an armed response from law enforcement. While the two can be connected, they are distinct actions with different objectives.
Can swatting calls be traced?
Tracing swatting calls can be challenging but not impossible. Advanced technology and collaboration with telecommunications providers help law enforcement agencies investigate and track the origin of these calls. However, swatters may take measures to conceal their identities. Efforts are underway to enhance caller identification technology, making it more difficult for swatters to hide.
In conclusion, swatting is a dangerous act where false reports to emergency services lead to excessive and harmful police responses. Swatters often target public figures, celebrities, online streamers, or just regular people they take personal issue with, intending to cause fear, panic, and chaos.
It’s recommended to take proactive steps to avoid being swatted. That involves safeguarding your digital identity and enhancing your online anonymity with various tools (like VPNs and firewalls). By implementing these precautions, practicing online vigilance, and promoting awareness, you can reduce the risk of becoming a victim of swatting and help maintain personal safety and security.
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