A Jennings County mother recently learned that the term “swatting” no longer entirely refers to an emergency tactical response by law enforcement, but also describes a popular prank often performed at the expense of people who play video games with an online audience, also known as “streamers.”
In this prank, the prankster calls police or other relevant authorities in an attempt to get them to storm the streamer’s residence by reporting a false emergency.
At 1 a.m. on Sunday, July 17, a Campbell Township resident was awakened by lights from county police flashlights shining through her front door. The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, had fallen asleep on her couch, completely unaware of what was transpiring just down the hall in her son’s bedroom.
The mother was initially told that a report had been made from a supposed gamer from Kentucky that her 12-year-old son was harming himself, however, the preteen was actually asleep in his room.
The family had only had internet for approximately three weeks. The son had received an Xbox, with only five people approved for him interact with online. In just three weeks of access to the internet, the 12-year-old was able to get into a situation that led police to his front door.
The situation could have easily been that one of the five people the preteen had access to, or a friend of one of those five people, was able to gather the young man’s information from the gaming system in order to send the police to his house for a false emergency.
After an “exhausted day of investigation” it was discovered that the incident was not a case of swatting, but what the Jennings County Sheriffs Office called an “embellished welfare check.” The mother explained that her son had merely been trying to impress someone he was playing with online, causing a serious miscommunication which led the other player to believe the 12-year-old was in need of help.
“Ours was a situation of a young man doing the right thing by being concerned for someone else,” said the mother. “Thankfully, there was no need for concern other than when immature, young minds are given access to a large world through a screen. With one click they can say, do, or be anything and have no clue — at the moment — of the harm they can create. Why? Because it all seems like a game.”
Because the caller was legitimately concerned for their friend’s welfare, nor was an emergency response unit deployed, it was not considered an incident of swatting. The whole incident, however, was educational for the mother by teaching her some of the dangers of the internet.
“I’ve learned a lot,” the mother said. “Swatting was something I knew nothing about. Glad I’m aware now.”
She noted that her son’s Xbox is now for sale.
While this Jennings family’s story was not ultimately a case of swatting, the results are very similar and just as serious and alarming.
Swatting has its origins in prank calls to emergency services reporting threats. Bomb threats were a concern to police in the 1970s, with public buildings such as airports and schools being evacuated in response to hoax calls that were designed to cause mass panic and public disruption, or to delay exams at educational institutions.
Over the years, callers used increasingly sophisticated techniques to direct response units of particular types, such as attempts to have SWAT teams be dispatched to specific locations, which spawned the term “swatting.” Swatting is linked to the action of “doxing,” which is obtaining and broadcasting, often via the internet, the address and details of an individual with an intent to harass or endanger.
“Kids today are IT geniuses; they know how to hack devices and use the dark web,” said JCSO Sgt. Ian McPherson. “What’s scarier is sometimes you don’t even need to hack into a system to get peoples’ information; they just willingly give it.”
Social media users voluntarily publish personal information to their accounts, such as date of birth, address, and phone number, which can be viewed by anyone, anywhere.
McPherson described a legitimate swatting incident that occurred in Jennings County approximately two years ago. A crisis hotline contacted the sheriff’s office regarding a call they had gotten from a man claiming to live at a Jennings County address who was requesting police because he had a gun that he had just used to kill his grandmother. As a result, 10 heavily armed deputies stormed the address given by the caller, greatly alarming the unsuspecting occupants, with police finding no evidence of the incident described by the caller.
It was eventually discovered that the caller was a young man from another state who was angry at a girl who lived at the Jennings address over something that had happened while they were playing Xbox. No one was injured in the incident and, while the sheriff’s office did not pursue charges against the man, they did alert the authorities in his state.
Making false reports to emergency services is a criminal offense in many jurisdictions, often punishable by fine or jail time. In March 2019, a California man was sentenced to 20 years in prison for instigating a fatal 2017 swatting.
Swatting can lead to a high risk of violence, and causes tax dollars to be wasted by the city or county when responding to false reports of emergencies as well as liability should things go tragically wrong.
Former California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill in 2013 that requires swatters in that state to bear the “full cost” of the response which can lead to fines up to $10,000.
How to prevent:
Cloudflare, a global network security company, says that while everyone should be careful to maintain online privacy, online gamers should take extra care to ensure they won’t be victims of swatting.
Gamers should avoid divulging information about their identity or location during in-game chat channels or gaming forums. They should also avoid using screen names that would make it easy for strangers to identify them.
Gamers can take further precautions and hide their IP address using a service like a VPN to ensure that a potential swatter won’t be able to locate them based on their IP address.
The US Department of Justice recommends these tips to help protect children:
• Discuss internet safety and develop an online safety plan with children before they engage in online activity.
• Establish clear guidelines, teach children to spot red flags, and encourage children to have open communication with you.
• Supervise young children’s use of the internet, including periodically checking their profiles and posts.
• Keep electronic devices in open, common areas of the home and consider setting time limits for their use.
• Review games, apps, and social media sites before they are downloaded or used by children.
• Pay particular attention to apps and sites that feature end-to-end encryption, direct messaging, video chats, file uploads, and user anonymity, which are frequently relied upon by online child predators.
• Adjust privacy settings and use parental controls for online games, apps, social medial sites, and electronic devices.
• Tell children to avoid sharing personal information, photos, and videos online in public forums or with people they do not know in real life.
• Explain to your children that images posted online will be permanently on the internet.
• Teach children about body safety and boundaries, including the importance of saying ‘no’ to inappropriate requests both in the physical world and the virtual world.
• Be alert to potential signs of abuse, including changes in children’s use of electronic devices, attempts to conceal online activity, withdrawn behavior, angry outbursts, anxiety, and depression.
• Encourage children to tell a parent, guardian, or other trusted adult if anyone asks them to engage in sexual activity or other inappropriate behavior.
• Immediately report suspected online enticement or sexual exploitation of a child by calling 911, contacting the FBI at tips.fbi.gov, or filing a report with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 1-800-843-5678 or report.cybertip.org