What Is Swatting, and What Does It Tell Us About the Internet's Worst Qualities?

Everything you need to know about swatting, one of the nastiest cyber crimes out.

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Complex Original

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The boys behind the "Damn Daniel" viral video are being blogged about across the Internet, but cameraman Joshua Holz fell victim to the web’s darker side early Tuesday morning after armed police showed up at his house in Riverside, Calif. The cops were responding to a hoax call they received claiming someone in Holz’s home had shot his mother with an AK-47.

Holz is just the latest victim of “swatting,” a twisted Internet prank that’s occurring with greater frequency across the country, leaving law enforcement officials baffled.

What Is Swatting? 
Swatting is when someone attempts to get police or S.W.A.T. (Special Weapons Attack Team) forces to raid an unsuspecting person’s home for unfounded reasons. Usually this is done by calling in a fake 911 report about a serious event of violence, such as a shooting or hostage situation. Perpetrators will use manipulated caller ID data and disguise their voice to conceal their identity. If they are successful, the “prank” will lead to local law enforcement—or even highly armed S.W.A.T. forces—raiding the person’s home or business at gunpoint, causing a dangerous situation for all parties.

How Did It Start?
Swatting took off as an Internet trend in just the last five to seven years. The FBI coined the term as early as 2008, when it labeled swatting a dangerous new phenomenon. While many people have fallen victim, it’s most common amongst the gaming community. Indeed, many swatting incidents have occurred while online gamers are livestreaming on Twitch, the popular website that allows users to share videos of themselves and their gaming sessions live on the Internet.

These Twitch livestreams can be hugely popular, and the idea behind the prank is to get police to break into their home and raid it live on camera in front of hundreds, or even thousands of people. It’s been successful, too. Major incidents in the videogame community started making headlines around 2011, and became so common that prominent gamer websites like Kotaku and Gamespot have reported on them extensively. You can even see archived videos of Twitch users being swatted all around the Internet. As a Nov. New York Times Magazine article pointed out, the victims are disproportionately women who are being harassed by misogynistic male gamers.

Who Has Been Affected By It?
As the Damn Daniel incident indicates, though swatting may be a pressing concern for the gamer community, the problem doesn’t begin or end there. Celebrities are also popular targets. Miley Cyrus has been swatted on two separate occasions at her Los Angeles home. In 2011, someone falsely reported a home invasion, and in 2012, someone called 911 claiming to be hiding in her closet after shots were fired in the house. Both times, it turned out to be nothing more than an elaborate prank, but the swatter was never found or charged with a crime.

Those who speak out against the practice have also fallen prey to it. Congresswoman Katherine Clark of Massachusetts became a swatting victim earlier this month after sponsoring the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act, which the Boston Globe reported “would make it a federal crime to spur an emergency response by any law enforcement agency without cause.” Swatters falsely reported an active shooter at her house, prompting a large-scale police response.

What Are the Consequences?
In the long history of putrid shit spewing from the infected colon of the Internet, swatting is among the dumbest (and most distressing) things to emerge. Obviously, it’s a massive waste of law enforcement resources that could leave police unprepared in case of a real emergency. The FBI reports that there are roughly 400 swatting attacks each year of varying severity. The most serious of these have cost the government $100,000 to respond to. It can also be incredibly dangerous for the people targeted. Police or S.W.A.T. forces enter the situation prepared to deal with a hostile criminal, and the victims are usually blindsided and not at all ready to have a gun to their head (who is, though, really?). Together, this creates huge potential for tragedy.

Police have thankfully started to crack down on swatting. Clark’s bill has yet to pass, but law enforcement has been using existing statutes to prosecute the assholes responsible. In January of last year, Jason Allen Nef was sentenced to five years in prison for his involvement in a number of swatting incidents. In October, 22-year-old Matthew Tollis was slapped with a year-long sentence for his own swatting attacks. Police even arrested a 13 year old in connection to three swatting pranks last March; he is likely to face probation.

Unfortunately, these cases remain the exception rather than the rule. Antiquated cyber-crime laws, combined with swatters diligently covering their tracks, have made it hard for police to stop this cruel practice. As awareness of swatting grows, hopefully law enforcement will get a better handle on how to catch and prosecute the perpetrators. Until then, swatting will remain a reminder that the dark corners of the Internet suck just as much as you thought they did.

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