What is Swatting? Online Harassment Taken Offline

swatting what it is and how to fight it
Credit: Getty Images

One of the more troubling channels of online harassment is swatting. Swatting basically consists of falsely reporting an emergency to local public safety services and first responders in order to send these services – SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams – to a location where no emergency actually is occurring. The perpetrator of these calls works to send these emergency services to someone’s house as a “prank”, with the ultimate goal being to scare, humiliate, and terrorize the victim.

Why is swatting characterized as part of online harassment? Because the intimidation actually starts online; in a forum, in a chat window, in a live stream, etc. Harassers stalk their intended victims online, gathering more and more information, and then use that information to perpetrate offline harassment; aka, swatting. 

Swatting: More Than Just a "Prank"

Swatting takes online harassment to a completely new level, escalating the level of threat and potential harm. The effects of swatting are three-fold:

  • Cost to the community: SWAT teams are highly trained emergency response personnel. The cost of this training does not come cheaply, and using these services under false pretenses is a waste of community resources. In addition, precious time and energy is spent chasing down these false calls – bomb threats, active shooter scenarios, threats of an imminent shooting rampage, hostage scenarios, and threats involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosives agents – that could be spent dealing with actual real emergency situations. 
  • The “boy who cried wolf” scenario: Swatting trivializes emergency situations, causing emergency responders to think twice before responding. According to Roger Hixson, the Technical Issues Director of the National Emergency Number Association, “False calls to 9-1-1 waste the time and resources of the PSAP and the responders, and can delay handling of real emergencies in busy timeframes at the PSAP. Faked 9-1-1 calls and related information also generate uncertainty as to the validity of other calls which may be real emergencies.” – 911 Emergency
  • Fear, humiliation, and potential collateral damage: As we will see in the following examples, swatting can be terrifying. The intent to cause this kind of reaction in their victims makes swatters incredibly dangerous. Tense situations such as this where armed police officers enter into a home where a potentially dangerous situation is taking place is fraught with risks, not only to the intended victim of the prank, but also to the people living in the house with him and/or her, as well as to the police officers themselves.

Examples of Swatting

A recent statistic released from the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that there are approximately 400 swatting attacks every year, based on information gathered from local law enforcement, monitored social media channels, and interviews with both victims and perpetrators.

The range of people who have experienced harassment in the form of swatting is quite varied. Celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Kim Kardashian, and Russell Brand have all been the victims of swatting. Regular people just living their lives are also the victims of swatting; their only “crime” being on the Internet. Here are more examples of swatting:

  • David Hogg, an outspoken proponent of gun control after surviving the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in February 2018, was swatted a few months after the shooting. The caller claimed there was a barricaded person inside Hogg's home. No one was in the home at the time but authorities responded to the prank with a full SWAT team.
  • A 19-year-old Washington state man was charged by California authorities after pretending to be calling from the home of a married California couple, saying he had just shot and murdered someone. A local SWAT team arrived on the scene, and the husband, who had been asleep in his home with his wife and two young children, heard something and went outside to investigate—after first stopping in the kitchen to pick up a knife. What he found was a group of SWAT assault rifles aimed directly at him. Fortunately, the situation didn’t escalate, and no one was injured. – The New Phenomenon of Swatting
  • Six Vermont schools belonging to the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union were shut down after an armed person threatened to appear at Essex High School, prompting the closure. – Schools Reopen After Threat Lockdown
  • US Air Force veteran Joshua Peters was swatted while playing “Runescape."Armed police officers stormed into Peters' Minnesota home, all in front of an online audience of about 60,000 people. "I see you posting my address. I had police point a gun at my little brothers because of you. They could have been shot, they could have died because you chose to SWAT my stream," Peters said. – What is Swatting?
  • An online Counterstrike match livestreamed on Twitch by YouTube gamer Jordan Matthewson (a.k.a. Kootra) was raided by SWAT officers in Littleton, Colorado after a 911 caller claimed a man had shot several coworkers in the Creatures LLC office building he was playing in. That day, YouTuber Amund Johnsen uploaded a recording of the incident, which gathered upwards of 2.3 million views and 9,800 comments in the next 48 hours. – Kootra Swatted

Is Swatting Legal?

Federal United States law prohibits using the telecommunications system to falsely report a bomb threat hoax or terrorist attack; falsely reporting other emergency situations is not currently prohibited. Swatting exploits this loophole. There have been a number of legal acts and bills introduced in both states and at the federal level to address this shortcoming, with more on the way. However, the biggest challenge to pushing these laws through seems to be that most swatters are under the age of 18. Swatting as a crime will continue to go largely unpunished until more states are able to successfully pass anti-swatting laws that address these loopholes.

The Motivation Behind Swatting

If you read swatting stories that include interviews with the perpetrators, the motive at the very top of the list for this level of harassment is that they did it for bragging rights. Basically, they did it to show other people that they could pull it off.

Swatting is online harassment taken to a whole new level. It requires a certain level of sophistication, homework, and sheer persistence in order to get the amount of information required to swat someone. A physical address, a viable way to mask the phone number that the perpetrator is calling from, and a somewhat believable story are the three key ingredients that the harasser needs in order to pull this off.

While some might be tempted to look at swatting as just another prank, we would caution readers to look at more seriously. Swatting–along with doxing–is a tactic used to harass and intimidate and has the potential to cause life-threatening harm.

Swatting seems to be most common among the gaming community, especially in online gaming communities such as Twitch. While once it was somewhat difficult to see the results of swatting, nowadays with Twitch users live-streaming gameplay it’s possible for the perpetrator to see their hoax in real-time, watching along with everyone else on that channel as police or other emergency personnel respond to a potential emergency situation. These incidents have been recorded and are passed around on online forums as bragging fodder for even more swatting calls.

Swatting: How It Is Done

There is some “homework” that a potential swatter needs to do before attempting to pull this off. In other words, someone can’t see what you’re doing on the Internet and instantly ascertain all the information that they need in order to do this. However, there are clues that these online harassers look for that will give them a trail of breadcrumbs to the information that they need.

How Harassers Can Get Your Information

Usernames: Perhaps you use Twitch, an online gaming community, to share your love of Minecraft. If you’re using the same username that you’ve used on a couple of other online platforms (something that is very common, by the way) this is something that someone can use to start putting together information about you.

Follow the clues: A simple username plugged into Google and other online search services can potentially reveal phone numbers, email addresses, place of work, relatives, social media platforms, and personal home addresses. Personally connected social media with public profiles can yield an amazing amount of information to those who are willing to look for it. A publicly shared email address can lead to a personal Facebook account with a public facing profile, which can lead to a Twitter account with workplace information, and so on.

Domain registration: If you own a website and have shared the URL of that site online, this is a goldmine to online harassers. Why? Because domain name registration does not obfuscate your private registration information (name, address, phone number, and email address) by default; you must pay for that at the time of registration.

None of this information can be found in one place, but by carefully putting it together one piece at a time, a persistent online harasser with time on his or her hands can eventually get what they need in order to make your life miserable.

The online harassment could start with name calling in a chat window, inappropriate pictures sent to a private message box, or insults traded in a public or private forum. Swatting takes online harassment offline by proving that they not only know who you are on the Internet but offline as well.

How harassers can mask where they are calling from: Services originally designed to help people who are hard of hearing are exploited for the purpose of harassment. Swatters use these services to call with complete privacy and anonymity, and the receiving operator reads the transmission to the intended victim on the other end of the call. There are other ways to mask where the phone number is actually calling from – for example, caller ID spoofing, social engineering tricks including using a third party to relay information - but this method is one of the easiest to exploit.

The “believable story”: Remember the “homework” that swatters need to do in order to pull off a successful swatting? Here’s where it comes in handy: in order to get the emergency responder to believe that this is a real incident worth a response, tidbits of actual personal information are inserted into the call (address, full name, other identifying information).

Once the harassers have the information that they need, they can watch in real-time as they retaliate against their victim while hundreds, even thousands, of people watch the swatting occur on their Twitch livestream, Facebook live account, or YouTube live streaming video. They can do this from around the world in any location that has phone service and an Internet connection.

How to Guard Against Swatting

While there’s no one-step solution that will completely guard against swatting, there are certainly measures you can take right now to safeguard your privacy and safety online and offline.

  • Use different usernames for every service you register for. Yes, this is a pain. However, many of us have gotten into the unfortunate habit of using the same username across many different services. This practice puts us at risk of being doxed, swatted, and harassed online. Privacy is worth a brief inconvenience.
  • Make sure your domain information is private. It’s easy to make this information private and it’s worth the extra $5-$10 a year to give yourself that peace of mind.
  • Report online harassers. Every online platform, from Twitch to Twitter, has a way to report online harassment. Keep a paper trail.
  • Don’t give out personal information. This should be obvious, but online harassment tactics are getting more and more sophisticated. Never give out personal information to someone you’ve met online and do not know personally.
  • Don’t open suspicious emails. If you get an email that seems a bit “off”, or is from someone you do not know, don’t open it. Better safe than sorry.

Community Online: How to Keep It Safe

The Web is a vast network of community. We use it to connect with people all around the world in every corner of the globe, and whatever interest or hobby we might be interested in, we can probably find someone else to share it with.

Sharing mutual interests in an online community that celebrates each individual’s unique contributions is wonderful. But this community comes with a price. As online communities become more prevalent along with the opportunity to share and broadcast live to a watching audience, so does the risk of being harassed by people in the audience who don’t necessarily agree with what you may be doing, who you are, or what you stand for – and will take steps to let you know.

There’s quite a bit more you can do to make sure that your safety and privacy online are at the highest levels they can be. Read the following resources to make sure you are protected:

What is Doxing? Learn what doxing is and how you can prevent it from happening to you.

How to Opt Out of People Search Sites: Here’s a quick primer on how to opt out of some of the most popular people search information sites. 

Ten Ways to Protect Your Privacy Online: How safe are you really online? Here are ten ways you can ensure your safety and privacy on the Web.

How Much Does Google Know About Me? Are you concerned with how much information is available out there about you? Read this article to find out what Google is tracking, and how you can control the flow of information.