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What is swatting?

CSO Online | Nov 12, 2020

Swatting is a form of harassment in which attackers try to trick police forces into sending a heavily armed strike force — often a SWAT team, which gives the technique its name — to a victim's home or business. Learn more about swatting and how to protect yourself from it.

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What is swatting?

Swatting is a form of harassment in which attackers try to trick police forces into sending a heavily armed strike force — often a SWAT team, which gives the technique its name — to a victim's home or business.

It is a dangerous practice that puts the community and first responders in harm's way.

For some attackers, this is the thrill and the purpose of swatting: to cause the victims to fear for their lives as armed police charge into their homes, often with little warning. The police often believe that they themselves are facing an armed and dangerous adversary, producing a potentially volatile scenario.

Swatting follows a basic and fairly simple pattern.

The attackers place a call to a law enforcement agency local to their victim.

They report that a particularly gruesome crime or imminent threat is taking place or about to take place at the victim's home

Often, they'll claim a hostage situation is in progress, and, to make sure the responding law enforcement team is particularly primed for conflict, they may imply that one of the hostages has already been killed, or is about to be.

In order to successfully swat someone, you need to know where they live; that's why swatting goes hand-in-hand with doxing, the practice of discovering and revealing personal information of individuals without their consent. Swatters will often begin their quest by seeking to dox their victims, and sometimes doxers will publicly post or sell people's personal information in the hopes that others will take the next step and swat them.

Swatters also need to disguise their identity, both to make their initial call more believable and to ensure that they don't end up getting in trouble. Swatters will generally use caller ID spoofing, a relatively simple technique that makes it appear that their call is coming from somewhere else. It's common to try to trick 911 operators into believing the call is coming from the victims themselves, which heightens the realism.

In one recent example, an unknown 911 caller claimed to be holding hostages at the home of Melina Abdullah, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement in Los Angeles. Police surrounded her home in an incident that was streamed live on Instagram, though thankfully the confrontation ended without violence. The caller said he wanted to "send a message" about his dislike of Black Lives Matter.

It's difficult to know how common swatting is, because, despite it being on law enforcement's radar for more than a decade, it still isn't a specific category that's used in the FBI's database of nationwide crime statistics. It's also hard to prevent so long as heavily armed police strike teams exist with a mission to respond to urgent requests for help.

To protect yourself, you should make sure that your home address or phone number isn't easily discoverable by a simple Google search. And online gamers in particular need to be careful about not revealing any potentially identifying information on in-game chat or gaming forums, since swatting is still common in gaming communities.
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