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Avast Academy Security Other Threats What Is a Swatting Incident and How Does Swatting Work?

What Is a Swatting Incident and How Does Swatting Work?

Swatting is a dangerous prank that involves someone making a false report to emergency services about another person, resulting in an armed response from law enforcement (such as a SWAT team). Learn more about swatting and how it works below. Then, help protect yourself from other online scams and digital threats with Avast One.

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Written by Ben Gorman
Published on March 12, 2024

What is swatting?

Swatting is an illegal prank that occurs when someone calls in a fake report to emergency services, accusing another person of a serious crime. Usually, the accusation is so severe that it warrants an immediate armed response from the police. Heavily armed law enforcement then arrive at the victim’s home to address the non-existent threat, with potentially devastating consequences.

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    Swatting is most prevalent in the online gaming and streaming communities, putting online gamers and other personalities at potentially higher risk. But, swatting calls have targeted a range of victims from politicians to senior citizens with no public profile.

    Swatting calls tend to be more common among the online gaming community.Swatting calls tend to be more common among the online gaming community.

    The swatting definition as we know it today was added to the dictionary only recently — Merriam-Webster added “swat” to their dictionary in 2019. But incidents are on the rise, and the number of swatting calls doubled from 2022-2023.

    How does swatting work?

    A swatting hoax starts with a swatter gaining the victim’s personal information like their home address and phone number. The swatter then makes a swatting call to the police (or 911), claiming an emergency is taking place at the victim’s residence, leading to the police being dispatched.

    The perpetrator may use hacking to access their victim’s personal details. But they can also get the info without hacking — by phishing or other social engineering ploys. It’s even easier for the swatter if the victim has been doxxed and had their home address or other contact details exposed online.

    To make a swatting call, the perpetrator needs personal information first.A swatting incident often starts with the perpetrator finding personal information online.

    Next, the swatter masks their location and number when calling the police by using some form of caller ID spoofing. Then they make a serious accusation against the victim or claim to be the victim confessing to a crime (for example, they might say they just killed someone). In other cases, they might say they’re a neighbor and heard gunshots in the victim’s home.

    At this point, the swatter’s job is done. Law enforcement must decide how to respond to the call. If the incident reported appears to be serious enough, a SWAT team may be sent to the residence.

    Is swatting illegal?

    Yes, swatting is illegal. It’s a federal crime in the US, meaning it’s usually punished as a felony. The punishment for swatting can be severe, and perpetrators face hefty fines and lengthy prison sentences.

    Swatting is incredibly dangerous to both first responders and victims. The victims, who have no idea what’s going on, might react by attacking law enforcement, causing the police to use deadly force.

    Swatting also harms neighborhoods and communities. Law enforcement can enact lockdowns or alerts due to swatting hoaxes involving bomb threats, active shooters, or terrorist attacks.

    Even when a swatting prank doesn’t end in tragedy, it still drains resources (and tax dollars) that could be better used to combat real threats.

    Examples of swatting incidents

    There have been countless swatting incidents over the years. Here are just a few examples:

    • Celebrity Swattings (2013): Celebrities became frequent victims of swattings in 2013, including Miley Cyrus, Ashton Kutcher, Tom Cruise, and Justin Bieber.

    • Live Stream Swatting (2014): Jordan Mathewson was swatted live on air during a gaming stream. The swatter called 911 and reported an armed hostage situation at his location. This was one of the first major viral events that caused swatting to become more widespread, especially among gamers.

    • Wichita Swatting (2017): A police officer shot and killed Andrew Finch in his home after responding to a swatting call. The swatter, Tyler Barriss, had attempted to target another player but mistakenly used Finch’s address. Barriss was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

    • Tennessee Swatting (2020): An elderly man, Mark Herring, was swatted in retaliation for refusing to sell his Twitter handle. The swatter claimed Herring had killed a woman at his home. Tragically, Herring died of a heart attack after heavily armed law enforcement surrounded his house.

    • Season of Swatting (2023-2024): Starting in December 2023 and continuing into 2024, there was a wave of swatting incidents that targeted American politicians. Over a dozen politicians, donors, and high-profile supporters were swatted in what was dubbed the “Season of Swatting” as it took place over the holiday season.

    Help protect against online scams with Avast One

    Swatting calls are a dangerous and illegal cybercrime that can result in incalculable trauma to victims, or even in death. Unfortunately, these incidents continue to persist as more of our time is spent online, making it easier for swatters to uncover personal details and use technology to cover their tracks.

    You can help protect yourself from swatting by safeguarding your identity online. Practice good cyber hygiene by never giving away your personal information and updating your passwords regularly. And use Avast One on all your devices to help block other online scams and protect your digital life.

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    Ben Gorman
    12-03-2024
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