What is swatting and how to prevent it?

Swatting is the act of sending emergency services to a specific location under a false claim. A type of criminal harassment technique, swatting is commonly associated with the gaming community, but many other high-profile incidents have also occurred.

Swatting most commonly involves calling the police on someone to report a hostile crime, claiming that they’re an immediate danger to themselves or the public. Common accusations include the victim being an active shooter, having a bomb, being a kidnapper, or experiencing a mental health emergency. Gamers who livestream are often targeted because the perpetrator can see the results of their “prank” live when they are apprehended by law enforcement.

Although swatting is comparatively rare, it can have serious consequences for both emergency services and victims alike. As a result, it’s a federal crime in the US that can lead to life imprisonment. 

Why it’s called swatting

The term “swatting” is derived from SWAT (which stands for special weapons and tactics), a type of US law enforcement unit that often uses military-style equipment and tactics during particular emergency situations, such as violent confrontations with criminals and riot control. A perpetrator of swatting will usually report a severe crime that law enforcement will perceive as requiring the presence of a SWAT team. When such a crime is reported, the onus is on acting quickly to prevent escalation of damage and violence rather than stopping to verify whether or not it’s real.

The consequences of swatting

One consequence is the waste of valuable time, money, and resources. A false swatting claim can result in real emergencies not being attended to. It can also cause serious harm to both law enforcement officials and the victim in the form of post-traumatic stress, injury, and even death. For example, in 2017, Andrew Finch was shot dead due to swatting after the perpetrator told police he had shot his father and was now targeting other family members. Later, the perpetrator claimed that the cause of the swatting was a feud in Call of Duty online. 

How perpetrators get away with it

When making the call to law enforcement, perpetrators use various technological means to hide their location and identity, such as ID spoofing, which shows the caller ID to be in a different location to where they really are. To hide their tracks, voice changers and temporary phone numbers are also utilized. Additionally, perpetrators often use social engineering techniques and doxxing to find out personal information about the victim from their peers.

How to prevent swatting

On a more systematic level, many advocates call for a decrease in the use of SWAT teams in general, pointing out that more often than not, they engage in over-the-top tactics and violence where it’s not needed, contributing to the growing concern over police brutality in the US. Because perpetrators know that they can very easily terrorize victims in their homes with a team of heavily armed police, they do. 

For anyone worried about becoming a victim of swatting themselves, there are several steps you can take to ensure your personal information is kept private: 

  • Limit the personal information you share online, especially anything pertaining to your location. 
  • Use a VPN to make sure criminals can’t find you via your IP address. 
  • If you receive mail from your online friends or followers, set up a PO box rather than giving out your home address. 
  • Some local authorities have even created anti-swatting registries where those worried about swatting can add their name and address. If anyone on the list is a victim of swatting, the police will know to proceed with caution. It’s worth checking out if such a registry exists in your jurisdiction. 

Wrap up

Swatting is a relatively rare crime, but consequences can be critical. If you have a following online and are concerned about the chances of being victimized, make sure to take all the precautions necessary to keep your identity and personal information private.

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