What is Swatting? How To Avoid Malicious, Dangerous Raids

You’re at home on the sofa, unwinding with Netflix and a beverage after a stressful workday, when you suddenly hear a loud banging on your front door. You peek at your front porch and are shocked to see a horde of law enforcement officers clad in riot gear, their weapons drawn.

At first, you conclude that the officers must be at the wrong house, but when you hear them shout your name and demand that you open the door, you slowly realize what’s happening: You have become a swatting victim.

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What is Swatting?

Swatting—or perhaps more correctly, SWATing—occurs when someone makes a false report to police or emergency services in an effort to convince them to send a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to a specific address.

Swatting perpetrators may report a nonexistent bomb threat, hostage situation or other potentially violent crime in progress to provoke an extreme response from law enforcement and emergency services.

When swatting attacks produce the desired result, a team of armed officers outfitted in tactical gear rushes to the provided address to respond to the alleged threat. In some cases, innocent victims have been injured or even killed by SWAT teams acting on bad information.

How Does Swatting Occur?

Swatters are able to unleash the fire and fury of law enforcement on their victims by accessing their personal information, specifically their home or work address and possibly their name, phone number, and other contact information. In most cases, swatters obtain this information through one of the following methods:

  • Location services: Computers, gaming consoles and mobile phones include a feature known as location services, allowing the device to identify their users’ locations at any given time to provide them with personalized information. However, enabling location services can also provide others with access to your location, which can then be used to launch a swatting attack (as well as other potential crimes).
  • Doxing: Doxing occurs when a person or organization publishes someone’s personal information—such as their home or work address, phone number, email address and other private data—online, virtually always with malicious intent. The doxer may obtain this information through public records searches, social media accounts, hacking or fraud.
  • User-provided information: In some cases, people just share too much of their personal information online, whether it’s on a social media profile, in a resume posted to their LinkedIn or Indeed profile or some other digital space. Putting this information out for public consumption can leave you vulnerable to swatters and other bad actors.
  • IP address information: Every device that accesses the internet, including desktop and laptop computers, tablets and smartphones, has a unique Internet Protocol (IP) address associated with it. Skilled hackers may be able to obtain the IP address for their victim’s device and use it to find other private information, such as their home address.

For a swatting attack to be successful, swatters also need to conceal their true identity—both to appear more convincing to emergency responders and also prevent themselves from being caught.

Swatters typically use caller ID spoofing to disguise their real phone number; this technique makes it look like the call is coming from a different number, in some cases from the victim of the swatting.

Swatters also use TTY services designed to assist individuals with hearing loss in making phone calls; these services translate text messages into voice calls to a third party and are required to protect the identity of the caller, which makes it easier for swatters to evade detection.

What Are the Motives for Swatting?

There are several common motivations for swatting, ranging from somewhat benign to outright violent. Some swatters see their actions as simply an entertaining prank, perhaps not realizing the risk of physical harm associated with these incidents. Other swatters may explicitly intend to hurt their victims, hoping to terrify and humiliate them or perhaps even put them in life-threatening danger.

Swatters may know their victims personally, or they may simply be targeting a random person or address. Increasingly, celebrities and public figures—especially in the online gaming world—are becoming swatting victims, since the incidents are likely to be live-streamed online or shared via viral video for the perpetrator’s entertainment.

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High-Profile Swatting Attacks

As public awareness of swatting has increased over the last decade, a number of serious attacks have made news, either due to the severe consequences of the incident or the high-profile victims involved. Below are just a few examples of swatting attacks that have made national headlines in recent years.

  • Melina Abdullah: The co-founder of the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter was targeted in August 2020, when members of the LAPD surrounded her home after a swatter falsely reported a hostage situation in retaliation for her activism.
  • Andrew Finch: In 2017, Kansas resident Andrew Finch was targeted by Tyler Barriss, who lived in Los Angeles. Barriss called emergency services in Finch’s area, claiming that Finch had murdered a family member and continued to hold two other people hostage. Police descended on Finch’s house and fatally shot him; Barriss was charged and sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the deadly incident.
  • Brian Krebs: This cybersecurity blogger was targeted by Sergey Vovnenko, a Ukrainian hacker who used the Dark Web to ship heroin to Krebs’ house and then reported it to local authorities once the package arrived. However, his plan failed and Vovnenko was later sentenced to 41 months in prison for an unrelated online crime.
  • Adam Mosseri: The Instagram CEO was targeted in 2019, when local law enforcement received calls reporting a hostage situation at his home address. Police surrounded the residence, but fortunately Mosseri was not physically harmed.
  • Kyle Giersdorf: This well-know 16-year-old “Fortnite” player was targeted by swatters while he was livestreaming, although one of the officers responding to the call recognized Giersdorf and canceled the raid.

Other well-known swatting victims include Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and Tom Cruise.

How Common is Swatting?

It’s almost impossible to identify precisely how frequently swatting occurs in the U.S., since the FBI still hasn’t created a category in its national database for this specific crime.

However, former FBI special agent Kevin Kolbye told a reporter with the Economist that swatting cases more than doubled in less than a decade, from roughly 400 attacks in 2011 to more than 1,000 in 2019.

How Can I Protect Myself from Swatting?

The best way to prevent yourself from becoming a swatting victim is to safeguard your online identity and personal information. The following steps can help deter potential swatters from targeting you:

  • Check your privacy settings. Enable the strictest possible privacy settings on your computer, tablet, mobile phone and social media accounts. Make it a habit to check these settings regularly, as they can sometimes be returned to default positions with software updates or system resets.
  • Change your passwords. It may be inconvenient, but changing your passwords often and using complex, unique passwords is essential to maintaining your digital security. Avoid the temptation to use the same password for multiple accounts, as this leaves you highly vulnerable to mass attacks if hackers are able to breach just one of your accounts.
  • Enable two-factor authentication. Whenever you have the option, use two-factor identification on accounts. This provides an extra ring of security around your information by requiring you to verify your identity through a code sent via text or email before you can log into an account or device.
  • Don’t share too much information. Avoid posting personal information like phone numbers, home addresses, the name of your employer and other specific data that could lead swatters to your location. Even tagging specific businesses or other locations on social media posts can help swatters piece together where you might be. Be especially mindful of professional websites like LinkedIn and Indeed, where you may have shared a resume with your contact information on it.

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Responding to a Swatting

If a swatter manages to make you a target, keep the following protocols in mind to help you escape the situation safely.

  • Stay calm. When law enforcement agents show up to your home or business, they likely believe they are responding to a serious emergency in which lives may be in danger. If you react with panic or anger, they may interpret your actions as hostile and be more likely to use force to gain control of the situation. Take a deep breath, try to remain calm and avoid raising your voice or making any sudden movements.
  • Cooperate with law enforcement commands. Even though you know there’s no emergency, the first responders on the scene likely do not. Until you are able to calmly communicate that you have been the victim of a swatting attack, it’s best to follow the instructions of law enforcement, even if that means being temporarily restrained or allowing them to search your property. You will have time to explain later as long as you don’t unnecessarily escalate the situation.
  • Report the incident. Once the immediate situation has been resolved, take the time to file a police report and if possible, press charges against the perpetrator. Swatting is a serious crime that can put innocent people’s lives in danger, and it creates an enormous waste of public resources and prevents first responders from attending to true emergencies.

What are Authorities Doing to Reduce Swatting?

As more high-profile swattings take place, lawmakers are beginning to recognize the seriousness and pervasiveness of this new category of crime. Anti-swatting legislation was first introduced in Congress in 2015, but it failed to be enacted.

After Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark was herself the victim of a swatting attack in 2016, similar legislation was introduced by a group of legislators the following year, proposing to crack down on online crimes like swatting, doxing and “sextortion.” The bill failed in 2018, and Congress has yet to make swatting a federal crime.

However, individual states are taking proactive steps to prevent swatting and provide for severe punishment of those who perpetrate it.

The Washington State legislature passed a bill in 2020 to allow for increased penalties for falsely reporting an emergency, and the Seattle Police Department also maintains a registry of addresses for individuals who feel they may be at increased risk of a swatting attack.

Though law enforcement will still respond to emergency calls related to these addresses, they can respond with the awareness that they may be reacting to a potential hoax.  

One police department is taking further steps to be proactive. The city of Seattle allows those worried about being swatted to register their concerns, which can be read about and signed up for here. While this won’t prevent a swat team from being dispatched to a registered address, it will make the law enforcement officers more aware going into the situation that they may be dealing with a potential hoax.

What is Swatting? Our Final Thoughts

As technology evolves, criminal activity evolves with it, and new crimes like doxing and swatting enter the mainstream. As increasing numbers of Americans become victims of swatting, state and federal laws (and related penalties) will eventually catch up, providing an effective deterrent to aspiring swatters—especially those who may consider swatting as little more than a harmless prank.

Until then, you should take the precautions listed above to reduce your risk of becoming a swatter’s next victim.

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