When he selected “@Tennessee” as his Twitter handle in 2006, shortly after the launch of the new microblogging platform, Mark Herring was simply expressing his affinity for his home state and his beloved University of Tennessee Vols. He could never have imagined that more than a decade later, the innocently chosen username would lead to his untimely death.
An early adopter of the new platform, Herring selected the handle when relatively few people had created accounts, so simple usernames like @Tennessee were still easy to secure.
An Offer to Purchase
As Twitter’s audience grew into the hundreds of millions, catchy, easy-to-remember usernames became a hot commodity, fetching thousands or even millions of dollars in the digital marketplace. Herring (left) reportedly received a handful of offers to buy the @Tennessee handle over the years, but he had no interest in selling it.
As more and more parts of our everyday lives move into online spaces, so too does criminal activity, and Mark Herring became a target of a group of online conspirators that sought to coerce average Twitter users like him to sell or otherwise surrender lucrative social media screen names, which the group could then resell at a much higher price.
If the owner of the username refused to consent to the sale, group members would unleash a campaign of online and real-life harassment that included threatening phone calls, unwanted food deliveries, and more.
Mark Herring Is Swatted
On April 27, 2020, Mark Herring received an anonymous phone call demanding that he relinquish the @Tennessee Twitter handle. When he refused, his address and phone number were subsequently posted on Discord, a social media site for online gamers—an action also known as “doxing“.
Later that day, emergency officials in Sumner County, where Herring lived, received a chilling report: A caller with a British accent stated that he was at Herring’s address, where he had fatally shot a female victim, and threatened to set off pipe bombs if police or emergency responders showed up at the property.
Shortly thereafter, local police arrived at Herring’s home with weapons drawn, demanding that Herring show his hands and walk slowly toward them.
As he obeyed their commands, Herring collapsed and was transported to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead after suffering a massive heart attack.
As police investigated the initial call to emergency dispatch—and also learned that several of Herring’s family members had received unwanted pizza deliveries around the same time police were rushing to Herring’s residence—they realized Herring had been the victim of a swatting, one with tragic consequences.
“Swatting” is the colloquial term for the act of falsely reporting a life-threatening emergency of crime in progress at a specific address in an effort to provoke a major response from law enforcement, often involving SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams and other first responders. For a deeper dive into what swatting is, we recommend our resource What is Swatting? How To Avoid Malicious, Dangerous Raids.
Perpetrator Apprehended and Charged
Within a few weeks of Herring’s death, federal authorities charged Memphis-area resident Shane Sonderman for his role in the incident. Sonderman had been the source of the post to Discord that revealed Herring’s phone number and address, and he had been working with several other partners—including a teenager in Great Britain—to employ swatting and other online harassment in an effort to gain control of high-value social media screen names. In addition to Herring, the group had targeted victims in Oregon, New York, Michigan and Virginia.
Though he was a minor at the time of the incident, Sonderman turned 18 after his arrest, and he was charged with wire fraud, conspiracy, false information and hoaxes and interstate communication of threats. He agreed to plead guilty to the conspiracy charge in exchange for the other charges being dropped.
His attorneys argued that Sonderman had a family history of mental illness and an unstable home life, asking the judge in the case to exercise leniency in his sentencing. He was sentenced to five years in prison, as well as the requirement to seek mental health treatment and restrictions on his internet access.
Not surprisingly, Herring’s family—as well as the other victims of threats and coercion by Sonderman and his co-conspirators—were disappointed in the brevity of Sonderman’s sentence, saying that it highlighted the need for stronger laws against swatting, doxing, and other forms of online harassment.
The Push For Laws Against Swatting
Currently, there are no federal laws that specifically prohibit swatting—despite Congressional efforts to pass national legislation in 2016 and 2018—and the FBI doesn’t include it as a category in its database of national crime. Meanwhile, instances of swatting have increased sharply in recent years, and are likely to continue to rise until state and federal laws are established to counter them.
A handful of jurisdictions, including Washington State, have passed laws beefing up penalties for falsely reporting an emergency, and a few law enforcement agencies have established registries for individuals who believe they may be at an elevated risk of a swatting attack. But for now, the lack of a widespread strategy to target swatting and similar online crimes means perpetrators will continue to seek out and target victims for their own entertainment or personal gain.
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