What is swatting? Unleashing armed police against your enemies

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Swatting definition

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. The Los Angeles Police Department, in a press release about a specific swatting attack that occurred in August of 2020, provided this definition of swatting: “The term ‘swatting’ refers to someone who places a false emergency call for service, generally of a nature which causes a large police response.”

The LAPD goes on to add that “the ‘swatting’ practice is dangerous and places 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 volatile scenario that can result in property destruction, injury, and death.

How swatting works

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.

There are a variety of techniques swatters use to pull off their attacks. Obviously 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 (like home addresses) 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 up the baton and swat them.

Swatters also need to disguise their own identity, both to make their initial call more believable and to ensure that they don’t end up getting in trouble once the deception has been revealed. Swatters will generally use caller ID spoofing, a relatively simple technique that makes it appear that their call is coming from somewhere else; if they’ve managed to dox the victim’s phone number, it’s common to try to trick 911 operators into believing the call is coming from the victims themselves, which heightens the realism. Swatters also make use of teletypewriter (TTY) relay services, which are intended to relay text messages from deaf or hard-of-hearing users as voice calls to a third party. Because TTY services are required to keep calls and callers confidential, this exploitation adds an extra layer of anonymity to the process.

None of these techniques require much by way of resources or technical skills, but they can go a long way towards shielding the perpetrators from consequences. Brian Krebs, author of the Krebs on Security blog and himself an attempted swatting victim (more on that in a moment) told the New York Times that “like any other type of crime, when the cost is zero and the deterrent is very low, you’ve created a perfect opportunity for people to pour time and resources into that crime.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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