Don’t Make the Call
The New Phenomenon of ‘Swatting’
Remember the “phone phreakers?” The term hit our national consciousness in the 1970s, when a magazine reported on a small group of techie troublemakers who were hacking into phone companies’ computers and making free long-distance calls.
Today, there’s a new, much more serious twist on this old crime. It’s called “swatting,” and it involves calling 9-1-1 and faking an emergency that draws a response from law enforcement—usually a SWAT team.
Needless to say, these calls are dangerous to first responders and to the victims. The callers often tell tales of hostages about to be executed or bombs about to go off. The community is placed in danger as responders rush to the scene, taking them away from real emergencies. And the officers are placed in danger as unsuspecting residents may try to defend themselves.
Last year, for example, 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 schemes can also be fairly sophisticated. Consider the following case investigated by our Dallas office recently in concert with a range of partners:
- Five swatters in several states targeted people who were using online telephone party chat lines (or their family or friends).
- The swatters found personal details on the victims by accessing telecommunication company information stored on protected computers.
- Then, by manipulating computer and phone equipment, they called 9-1-1 operators around the country. By using “spoofing technology,” the swatters even made it look like the calls were actually coming from the victims!
- Between 2002 and 2006, the five swatters called 9-1-1 lines in more than 60 cities nationwide, impacting more than 100 victims, causing a disruption of services for telecommunications providers and emergency responders, and resulting in up to $250,000 in losses.
- “Swats” that the group committed included using bomb threats at sporting events, causing the events to be delayed; claiming that hotel visitors were armed and dangerous, causing an evacuation of the entire hotel; and making threats against public parks and officials.
Case work. The swatters were tracked down through the cooperative efforts of local, state, and federal agencies and the assistance of telecommunications providers and first responders. In all, the case involved more than 40 state and local jurisdictions in about a dozen states. All five subjects have pled guilty to various charges and are scheduled to be sentenced in 2008.
Why did they do it? Said Kevin Kolbye, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of our Dallas office: “Individuals did it for the bragging rights and ego, versus any monetary gain.” Basically, they did it because they could.
Law enforcement agencies at all levels are currently working with telecommunications providers around the country to help them address swatting activity.
You can help, too—if you believe you’ve been a victim of a “swat” please contact your local FBI office.