'Swatting' is 'a potentially deadly crime' that's very common

Brian Krebs said people who make these calls frequently can face stiff penalties, while others often get off free

By Katherine Burgess
The Wichita Eagle

WICHITA, Kan. — Brian Krebs remembers holding a roll of tape in his hand, about a dozen guns pointed at his head.

Two teenagers had called the police to Krebs’ house in Virginia in what is referred to as a swatting report. Krebs had been using a roll of tape as he worked around the house, and now thinks about how the police could have thought it was a weapon.

Wichita police investigate a call of a possible hostage situation near the corner of McCormick and Seneca in Wichita, Ks Thursday night 12/28.
Wichita police investigate a call of a possible hostage situation near the corner of McCormick and Seneca in Wichita, Ks Thursday night 12/28. (Fernando Salazar /The Wichita Eagle via AP)

“I’ve long said this needs to be attempted murder,” Krebs told The Wichita Eagle on Friday. “Nine times out of 10 nobody gets hurt or nobody gets seriously hurt, but things can go wrong.”

Krebs, a former Washington Post reporter who covers cybersecurity, was a victim of swatting in 2013.

Swatting is when someone makes a call to a police department with a false story of a crime in progress – often with killing or hostages involved – in an attempt to draw a large number of police officers to a particular address. It’s often related to online gaming, such as when SWAT teams arrived as a gamer in Colorado was live-streaming.

Wichita police said swatting led to the shooting of a man in Wichita on Thursday night. Andrew Finch, 28, was shot and killed by a Wichita police officer when police responded to a false report of a killing and hostage situation.

Online gamers said the person who made the swatting call was given the wrong address by his intended victim, sending police to Finch’s home. Finch’s mother said Finch was shot when he opened the door to investigate the flashing lights outside his home. She said her son, who was not armed, screamed when he saw a police officer and was shot.

Wichita police said they ordered the man who appeared in the doorway to raise his hands, which he did. He then lowered them to his waist multiple times. The final time, he raised them quickly and officers thought he might be raising a gun. An officer then shot him.

The FBI told The Wichita Eagle that it does not collect statistics on swatting, since it is investigated by local law enforcement. The bureau did tell The Verge in 2013 that it estimated there are around 400 swatting attacks per year.

Miley Cyrus has been swatted twice. Other celebrities who’ve been targeted include Justin Timberlake, Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber.

Krebs said swatting is “extraordinarily common.”

Krebs said people who make these calls frequently can face stiff penalties, while others often get off free. Most of the time, the people making these calls aren’t caught, Krebs said. Seeking them out is expensive and when they are found, they’re often minors.

The FBI estimates the average swatting incident costs $10,000, Krebs said.

In Denver, a swatting incident cost law enforcement agencies an estimated $25,000 in 2015. A 2015 incident in Rochester, New York, was estimated to cost about $15,000.

Stacey Wright, senior intel program manager at the Center for Internet Security, said another cost comes from law enforcement and first responders being unavailable to respond to real incidents.

Officers who respond to a swatting call expect to find a hostage situation or an active shooter.

“In most cases the people at that scene aren’t expecting law enforcement or first responders to show up, so they’re caught off guard,” Wright said.

In Kansas, making a false call for emergency public assistance is a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in the county jail, a fine of up to $2,500 or both. Some false calls to police can instead be a felony, punished with up to 13 months in prison for a first-time offender.

However, a 12-year-old in California was sentenced to two years in juvenile detention after swatting two celebrities in 2013, according to CNN.

A 19-year-old in Massachusetts was sentenced to more than 11 years in federal prison in 2009 for what the FBI called a “swatting conspiracy.” In 2016, a 43-year-old man received seven years in federal prison for swatting and resisting arrest. His co-defendant was given five years in federal prison and ordered to pay nearly $80,000 in restitution.

It can be unclear who should investigate or prosecute a case of swatting, the New York Times reports, particularly if calls are placed from different states or even different countries.

There have been attempts to make swatting a federal crime. In 2015 Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts introduced the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act, which was referred to a subcommittee and never received a vote. In June, she introduced the Online Safety Modernization Act of 2017, which would also make “false communications to cause an emergency response” a criminal violation. It also has been referred to subcommittee.

Clark found her own home swarmed with police after someone made a false report of a shooter at her house, not long after she sponsored the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act.

Wright said when she first heard about swatting in the mid-2000s, the goal was just to get law enforcement or first responders to act.

Now, it’s transformed into something more malicious, with people targeting individuals out of spite or a desire for revenge.

Krebs said he takes issue with people calling swatting a “prank.”

“I think using the word prank is way too light of a term to toss around with something like this,” Krebs said. “It’s a crime is what it is. It’s a potentially deadly crime.”

©2017 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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