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Swatting: A Deadly Trend

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  • Swatting: A Deadly Trend

    The dangerous pranks are a risk to first responders and the public, but there are warning signs telecommunicators can look out for.

    [Originally published in the November/December 2022 PSC magazine.]

    By Tina Chaffin

    The call comes in just like any other emergency call. The caller needs the police because there has been a shooting. You verify the address and phone number showing on your ANI/ALI screen and start to question the caller. The caller states he killed his entire family, and if you do not send help, he will kill himself next. He is highly agitated and says he is not sure why he did this, that he wants to die and if you do not hurry, it will be too late. Officers rush to the scene, knowing they are heading into a volatile situation. Before arriving on scene, the caller gets agitated and hangs up. You now have no idea what he intends to do.

    Officers approach the scene with caution. They pull up to a dark and quiet house. A call back to the phone number the suspect gave you goes unanswered. After officers knock numerous times at the front door a light comes on in the back of the house, and slowly the door opens. Officers order the man, clearly confused, to drop his weapon and come out of the house with his hands up. Indicating he does not have a weapon; the man puts his hands up and does what the officers request. Officers report that they have the suspect in custody, but upon further investigation, they find the residents asleep and unharmed. The homeowner does not possess a weapon and never made a call to 9-1-1.

    The homeowner, your emergency communications center (ECC) and responding officers have just been swatted. Swatting is a prank call made to an ECC intending to have an emergency response team dispatched to a particular location. The person who initiates the call is called a swatter. A swatter typically uses a website such as spoofcard.com to disguise their phone number. There are several cell phone apps and websites that provide this feature. There is no law prohibiting using such a service unless it is used for fraudulent purposes, as in the case of swatting. Individuals might use hearing-impaired relay services to complete a swatting call, a VoIP phone service or portable phone line devices such as Magic Jack. The 9-1-1 system itself is not being “hacked” — swatters do not have access to 9-1-1 databases. They use technology to trick the 9-1-1 system into displaying inaccurate
    information.

    The swatter will call 9-1-1 and indicate they have committed a murder, holding someone hostage or have barricaded themselves inside a residence. These are scenarios they hope will draw a SWAT team response. In reality, most agencies will send patrol officers to assess the situation before requesting the SWAT team. For telecommunicators, there is no guaranteed way to differentiate between an actual incident or a swatting call. Swatters make themselves believable by referencing real resident names, occupations, streets and landmarks.

    The FBI coined the term swatting in 2008, but these incidents originated many years earlier. Technically, even bomb threats are a form of swatting. Many swatting incidents end with innocent individuals in handcuffs, forced to the ground and temporarily detained. However, from the start the FBI, responders and telecommunicators sighed a frustrated breath of relief after each incident ended in a peaceful resolution. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before one of these incidents resulted in the injury or death of a responder or innocent person.

    That day arrived in 2015. An Oklahoma ECC received a call from an individual claiming to have placed a bomb in a preschool. Officers were met by gunfire when they forced entry into a nearby home, after being led to believe the threats originated from that location. The homeowner, believing it was a home invasion, fired multiple shots and struck the police chief four times. The police chief had stopped to put on a bulletproof vest before entering the home and survived the shooting.

    The first fatal incident occurred in 2017. Kansas officers responded to a home believing the caller had shot his father in the head. Telecommunicators had no idea they were speaking to one of the most infamous swatters on the internet. Earlier that day, two gamers argued over a $1.50 lost bet. The loser arranged to swat his opponent. The opponent encouraged the swatting by providing the swatter with his former address. When officers arrived on scene, they ordered the resident out of the house with his hands up. When the resident briefly dropped his hands, he was shot and killed just outside his door. That was not the only death resulting from this prank. A year later, the deceased’s niece took her life due to the trauma of witnessing her uncle’s death. When her boyfriend came home and found her, he too took his life.

    In 2020, swatting claimed another innocent victim. As a 60-year-old man in Tennessee slowly walked toward officers with guns drawn, he suddenly collapsed. He was transported to the hospital, having succumbed to a heart attack. The swatter told telecommunicators he shot a woman and had pipe bombs around the house. The swatter in this incident was calling from Great Britain. The incident occurred because the swatter wanted the victim’s Twitter handle.

    How do telecommunicators protect themselves from swatting? Telecommunicators have no way of distinguishing a swatting call from a genuine call for service. Ultimately, when help is requested telecommunicators have a duty to act. It is not a telecommunicator’s job to question the legitimacy of the call. Below are potential indicators of swatting developed by the New Jersey Cybersecurity & Communications Integration Cell. While helpful, these tips are in no way meant to imply it is acceptable to disregard a call for help because it may be a swatting. The number one rule in the ECC always applies, “When in doubt, send them out.” Indications of a potential swatting call include:
    • Receiving only one call for an incident such as an active assailant or other mass casualty incident, which normally overwhelm the ECC with calls.
    • A swatter may block or spoof their phone number using an uninitialized cell phone displaying a 911-area code so the ANI/ALI may show all 9s or 0s instead of a phone number, or it may show a 661-area code Skype call, another frequent method swatters use.
    • The call comes in on a non-emergency line and shows as blocked, unavailable or private. Some swatters spoof the phone number to match the address they are swatting if the victim has a landline phone.
    • The background noise does not match the scenario. In an incident where someone is shot or there are hostages, there is likely to be background noise. Perhaps someone whimpering, a muffled cry or someone is trying to negotiate with the caller.
    • The telecommunicator may hear typing or computer noises in the background indicating that the swatter may attempt to locate information on the computer to validate their story such as nearby cross streets, the name of a nearby school or business, or the imagery of the neighborhood.
    • The caller cannot answer questions requiring details. For instance, they describe the outside of the house because it is available online but hesitate when asked where the kitchen or bedroom is located inside the house.
    • Most swatters are not in the same city, state or country so the caller is unfamiliar with local streets, businesses or city name pronunciations that a resident would know.
    • When a telecommunicator challenges the details of the incident, the swatter intensifies their threats or changes critical details. At no point should a telecommunicator try to discredit a caller, but simply asking for verification of details may frustrate the swatter into making a mistake.
    • Instead of simply saying, “I have a gun,” the swatter may refer to a particular type of gun, likely one they use while playing video games. “I have an M1 Garand; if officers come near this house, I will shoot.”
    • The telecommunicator hears gunshots or background noises that are inconsistent with the incident or, in some cases, sound fake. The swatter may be playing audio files or recordings of video game firefights.
    • Finally, almost all swatters say these three things: they are armed, they are suicidal and they are going to kill any responders that come to the scene.

    Despite these potential warning signs, telecommunicators must treat all calls as a threat until proven otherwise. Document all details provided by the caller, and if the caller makes threats be sure to document their comments verbatim in call notes. Document any inconsistencies the caller gives such as changes in the scenario, address or victims.

    When officers arrive on scene they may notice inconsistencies. For instance, the door may be a different color. Ask the caller to confirm, but be careful not to give the caller the correct answer. Say, “I have officers in the area. Can you confirm the front door color?” Do not say, “Are you sure the front door was blue? Officers see a red door.” It is vital to ask for details, but use caution. If the swatter feels challenged, they will likely disconnect the call.

    Check in-house information for current resident information. If allowed, have a coworker attempt to make contact with the resident using an alternate phone number. Communicate with responders before making any phone calls inside the residence. Review previous incidents at the location. One family in Illinois was swatted three times before the agency made a plan with the resident to call their cell phone before sending responders when a call was received “from” their address. If a location is swatted, consider flagging the address to indicate previous swatting incidents.

    Unfortunately, most swatting calls will not be revealed as a hoax until responders arrive on scene. The best practice for telecommunicators is to continue asking questions and giving instructions to keep everyone involved as safe as possible. A telecommunicator’s intuition is one of the best tools to combat swatting incidents.

    Remember, you are the first, first responder, the eyes and ears until officers arrive on scene. If something does not seem right about the caller or their information, relay your concerns to responders.

    Tina L. Chaffin is a Trainer and part-time Police/Fire Public Safety Telecommunicator at the Castle Hills (Texas) Police Department. She has been a telecommunicator for over 25 years.


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  • #2
    Thank you for reposting this, our state has been hit with a couple of these calls to our schools and my biggest fear is that someone will try it here. Our history will come back 10 fold and send this community into a tailspin, so it's vital that my staff stays on top of this for all our sakes.
    Maureen

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