Upcoming Elections Likely to Fuel Swatting Incidents

Swatting
February 28, 2024

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With the 2024 presidential elections on the horizon, the dangerous crime of swatting is likely to increase as an instrument of harassment, retaliation, and intimidation against political candidates and their prominent backers. Many U.S. lawmakers and their supporters state they are concerned about their safety, particularly due to the rise of threats against them and growing support of political violence. 

  • The U.S. Capitol police opened 8,008 threat assessment cases in 2023 after cases dropped in 2022 from a post-January 6, 2021 high. 
  • According to a recent survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, almost a quarter of Americans report they might have to resort to violence “in order to save our country.” 

Anyone is at risk of swatting–public and private citizens, politicians from both sides of the aisle, celebrities, and billionaires have all been targeted–and sometimes the results are deadly as these incidents often involve confrontations with police who arrive at unsuspecting victims’ homes. In 2020, Mark Herring died of a heart attack during a police response to his home in Tennessee caused by a fraudulent report of a shooting. Among the swatters involved, two were minors at the time and one was located in the United Kingdom.

What is Swatting? 

Growing up, many of us probably made prank calls to friends and neighbors, or were aware of a situation where someone called in a bomb threat at a school or building. Most of the time there was no actual threat and the perpetrator was a minor retaliating against a decision or a school administrator, or they committed the act for “fun.” 

While swatting has its origins in hoax calls to emergency services, swatting is not a prank. Swatting is a more deliberate and strategic act to lure emergency services into sending a police or rescue service to a person’s address, claiming there is a serious emergency, such as a bomb threat, murder, kidnapping, or mental health crisis. Callers are using increasingly sophisticated techniques to direct response units of particular types, specifically SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams to a victim’s location. 

  • The caller typically places a 911 call using a spoofed phone number, hiding the caller’s real location and making it appear the emergency call is coming from the victim’s phone. Many calls are made using burner phones or Voice over Internet protocols (VOIP) with voice synthesizers. Emergency services personnel have been tricked by calls placed from cities hundreds of miles away from the location of the purported call.
  • Swatting is also linked to doxxing, which is obtaining and broadcasting the address and details of an individual with an intent to harass or endanger them. 
  • Swatting also wastes resources, as each incident is estimated to cost between $15,000 and $25,000 and takes police and rescue service personnel away from responding to real emergency situations. 

Public and Private Victims 

Swatting victims come from all social classes and political parties. Republican presidential contender Nikki Haley, Georgia Republican Lieutenant Governor Burt Jones, Republican Senator Rick Scott, Democrat Eric Swalwell, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have all fallen victim to swatting. Prominent Trump supporter and Republican Majorie Taylor Green said she was swatted eight times with police showing up at her home, including on Christmas. 

  • Individuals connected to the court cases against former President Trump have also been swatted, including Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith who was the victim of a swatting call last Christmas in which callers claimed he shot his wife at their home in Maryland. Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said once she announced the disqualification of former President Trump from the presidential primary ballot in her state last December she became the victim of swatting as police were informed someone had broken into her home while she was away for the weekend. 
  • Celebrity swatting victims include Tom Cruise, Ashton Kutcher, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ryan Seacrest, Charlie Sheen, and Justin Timberlake. Democrat mega donor George Soros was the victim of a swatting prank in early January at his Hamptons home in which a caller claimed he killed his wife and was threatening to kill himself.
  • Author Patrick Tomlinson and his wife have been swatted at their home in Milwaukee at least 40 times, often with police officers showing up at their door, but law enforcement has not been able to stop the calls. Tomlinson’s swatting began when he posted a remark on Twitter in 2018 stating he never found the comedian Norm MacDonald very funny and online users soon began to harass, stalk and impersonate Tomlinson, encouraging others to pile on. 

Swatting incidents are also on the rise in schools and universities. In less than a single week in April 2023, universities including Clemson, Florida, Boston, Harvard, Cornell, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, and Oklahoma were targeted by swatters. According to the Educator’s Safety Network, the most frequent violent incident during the 2022 to 2023 school year was swatting, namely the false report of an active shooter. The majority of these incidents were perpetrated by individuals or groups outside of the school itself, even outside of the country. 

Swatters have also targeted government buildings, businesses, hospitals and religious buildings. The White House was targeted earlier this year when emergency responders were dispatched to a false alarm after a 911 caller claimed there was a structure fire in the building. President Biden was at Camp David at the time. 

Prosecuting and Tracking Swatters 

Many have called for swatting to be considered terrorism due to its use to intimidate and create the risk of injury or death. Making false reports to emergency services is a criminal offense in many jurisdictions, often punishable by fine or imprisonment. Nonetheless, swatting is challenging to prosecute as there is no single federal law criminalizing swatting in the U.S. Without a statute in place, there also are no designated resources or training to investigate swatting incidents as emergency services personnel do not have the resources and training they need to determine actual and false reports. The False Information and Hoaxes statue, also known as section 1038, is the most frequently used to prosecute swatting. Although efforts to create federal legislation criminalizing swatting have failed, representatives at the State level are having some success in introducing legislation to establish penalties for swatting. 

  • A bill that would make swatting calls a felony unanimously passed the Iowa Senate on February 20. Minnesota lawmakers are considering a proposal to toughen penalties for swatters; House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth introduced a bill that would make it a felony offense to call law enforcement to the homes of judges, prosecutors and correctional officers in a fake emergency situation. 
  • In 2023, Ohio representatives made it a felony offense to call in a false emergency that initiates a law enforcement action. Virginia lawmakers also introduced penalties for swatting calls to include up to 12 months in jail. 

Further complicating matters, tracking swatters and obtaining official statistics on the crime is nearly impossible as no central agency has tracked these incidents or suspects in the U.S. To address the growing problem, the FBI is establishing a nationwide online database to facilitate information sharing between hundreds of police departments and law enforcement agencies across the country regarding swatting incidents.

How Can Concentric Help? 

Given the volatile political climate, and the difficulty in tracking and stopping swatters, this problem is likely only going to get much worse as the 2024 presidential election approaches. Those with political connections and interests are likely to be at a heightened risk of swatting over the next several months. Concentric can help you protect yourself, your family, and your business from falling victim to this senseless crime. We recommend the following steps: 

  • Limit online information: 
    • Be mindful of what you share: The first line of defense against swatting is to protect your address and other personally identifiable information (PII). Avoid posting your home address, phone number, or other personal details on public platforms such as social media or gaming profiles. Use strong privacy settings and consider using aliases or nicknames. Scrubbing services, such as Eclipse by Concentric, can help remove publicly available information about where you and your family live. 
    • Geotag responsibly: Disable location services on social media posts or photos, especially those that reveal your home.
    • Be cautious with in-game communication: Avoid heated arguments or “trash talk” that could be used to identify or target you.
  • Protect your online presence:
    • Use a VPN: A virtual private network (VPN) encrypts your internet traffic and masks your IP address, making it harder for someone to track your location.
    • Enable two-factor authentication: This adds an extra layer of security to your online accounts, making it harder for someone to hack in.
    • Be wary of phishing attempts: Don’t click on suspicious links or attachments, and be cautious about giving out personal information online.
  • Additional measures:
    • Consider a swatting registry: Some local police departments keep records of those at high-risk of swatting and respond with extra care to calls for those addresses. Individuals who have previously been swatted or have been threatened with swatting should contact their local police to discuss potential risk-mitigation measures. This can help law enforcement verify the legitimacy of a call before deploying a SWAT team.
    • Stay informed: Research swatting tactics and stay updated on the latest methods used by perpetrators.
    • Report suspicious activity: If you receive threats or experience online harassment, report them to the appropriate platforms and law enforcement.
    • Stay calm: If you become a victim of swatting, remain calm and work with local law enforcement personnel.
    • Monitoring services: Concentric’s Active Monitoring services can also help flag incidents of doxxing and can alert you to PII exposure. Concentric can also monitor for disturbances near specific addresses and also deploy executive protection agents as an added layer of security protection.

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