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‘Swatting’ no prank to video game celebrities

Experts know of no swatting victim who has been killed or seriously injured by responding officers — but the threat is real

By John Keilman
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Alexander Wachs makes his living playing video games for the enjoyment of a vast online audience, and a few weeks ago, he was guiding an avatar through the zombie-infested wasteland of “DayZ” when loud thumps interrupted his adventure.

“Hold on, guys, give me a second here,” Wachs said as he slipped off his headphones. “Give me one moment, guys.”

A video capturing the session on the streaming website Twitch then cuts to Wachs’ empty, spinning chair. Minutes later a well-armed Plainfield police officer in a bulletproof vest enters the frame, leading a drug dog as it sniffs around Wachs’ desk.

For the third time in a month, Wachs had been “swatted,” the term for sending police to someone’s house or business on a phony emergency. It’s a crime that happens hundreds of times a year, but in this case, the only people arrested were Wachs and his housemate — charged with marijuana possession after officers allegedly found the drug in the house.

Though prosecutors eventually dropped the charges, the episode put a strange twist on a hoax that is increasingly striking participants in the world of video gaming.

Targets range from celebrated professionals to unknown amateurs, and the perpetrators — who are rarely caught — are generally thought to be technologically savvy teenagers who are nursing a grudge or eager to pull off what they regard as a practical joke.

“It’s become the prank call, if you will, for this generation,” said Brian Krebs, founder of the computer security news website Krebs on Security and a swatting victim himself.

“I’d like to think a lot of these kids who are perpetrating these crimes really just don’t know what they’re doing ... (but) I don’t think that holds true across the board, or even in most cases. A lot of kids engaged in this swatting activity know exactly what the stakes are.

They’re participating in mob behavior on the Internet, and that’s the risk they’re willing to take.”

Experts knew of no swatting victim who has been killed or seriously injured by responding officers — one widely circulated account of a gamer’s father getting shot by police is false — but the threat is real, straining the nerves of gamers and law enforcement professionals alike.

“It has to be treated as a real situation,” said Sgt. Bill Davis of the Naperville Police Department, which has responded to three swatting calls this summer. “Citizens could be put in harm’s way. You could have an innocent person and officers responding to a call of shots fired. It can be very hazardous to anyone in the area.”

Swatting cases go back at least a decade, and the FBI has estimated that 400 incidents take place annually. Richard Lewis, who has written about the phenomenon for The Daily Dot, said it started hitting gamers a couple of years ago in the wake of highly publicized false alarms striking Hollywood celebrities.

One reason, he theorized, is that gamers often livestream their exploits, giving swatters a front-row seat as the scene plays out.

“When you swat somebody on Twitch, you get to watch it unfold,” Lewis said. “If the police arrive during the gaming session, the mischief-maker gets to sit back and watch his handiwork. You don’t have to imagine how awkward it was for everyone. You can see it happen.”

An unsettling example came in late August, when the desktop video camera of Jordan Mathewson, a professional gamer known as Kootra, captured shouting, cursing, rifle-brandishing SWAT officers from the Littleton, Colo., Police Department bursting into his office on a false report of a shooting and hostage-taking.

“Don’t you (bleeping) move, you hear me, boy?” one officer commanded as cuffs were snapped onto Mathewson’s wrists.

Littleton police later acknowledged the call had been a hoax.

Less celebrated gamers are also at risk. In April, dozens of heavily armed officers swarmed the Long Beach, N.Y., house of an 18-year-old after a Skype caller claiming to be the teen said he had just murdered his mother.

The apparent reason for the false alarm, police said, was that someone had just lost to the teen in the video game “Call of Duty.”

Police have not announced arrests in either case, an indication of how digital camouflage can help swatters cover their tracks. Ty Wooten of the National Emergency Number Association said hoaxers often use cheap software to “spoof” their target’s phone number, making it look as if a 911 call is coming from his address.

The other common technique, Wooten said, is to send a text or other electronic message to a TTY relay service, which helps the deaf and hard of hearing communicate by phone. A TTY operator then reads the message to the 911 dispatcher.

Wooten said dispatchers can do little to sniff out false alarms before alerting police.

“Most 911 agencies have protocols about how to handle calls for service, like a regular call for a hostage situation or an active shooter,” he said. “It’s hard to train 911 telecommunicators to do something that’s contrary to their protocol because of a small number of perpetrators who are trying to do this out of malfeasance.”

Matt Haag, a well-known professional “Call of Duty” player from the Chicago suburbs who competes under the name Nadeshot, said he and his teammates on the OpTic Gaming squad have been swatted a half-dozen times in the past year.

After the first incident, which he said involved assault rifle-wielding officers entering his house in the middle of the night, the local police department has called ahead before sending a squad car to check things out.

“They’ve been nothing but nice since the first situation,” he said.

Wachs, 24, who streams and produces gaming videos under the handle of Whiteboy7thst, would seem an unlikely target for a swatter’s wrath. Soft-spoken and congenial, he is known for being especially fan-friendly, bantering with an audience that sends him a torrent of instant messages as he plays.

But starting in July, Plainfield police officers came to his door repeatedly after receiving startling -- and fake -- emergency calls. Police would not release the recordings, but Detective Sgt. Kevin McQuaid said the first two calls dealt with shots fired and a person waving a gun.

The third came Aug. 17, when someone said a suicidal, armed person was in Wachs’ house. Despite the previous false alarms, McQuaid said officers were obliged to “assess the situation” to be sure the report was a hoax.

He said police were let into the house and that they found marijuana, which court documents put at 30 to 500 grams, in plain sight.

Wachs and his housemate Kelly Popp were arrested, booked and released on $35,000 bond. They faced charges of possessing cannabis with intent to deliver, an offense that brings a potential sentence of two to five years in prison.

“In one respect, (Wachs) is the victim of the swatting,” McQuaid said. “At the same time, while the officers are there they see another crime occurring. Just because he was a victim doesn’t mean he can possess what he was charged with.”

Wachs declined to comment, but his attorney, John Paul Ivec, suggested he would challenge the legality of the search.

“No one can go into your home without a permitted exception,” he said. “It may exist, depending on what the facts are. If the officers should have known (the call) was false, then they had no reason to go in.”

On Thursday, after the Tribune inquired about the case, the Will County state’s attorney’s office said it would drop the charges.

Spokesman Charles Pelkie said that even though police acted in good faith, prosecutors took a second look at the case and determined that “the unique set of circumstances” that brought officers inside the house meant the evidence might not survive a motion to suppress.

He added that police and prosecutors are continuing to pursue the swatters.

“We do have some leads in that regard,” he said.

Wachs, meanwhile, has carried on streaming and producing YouTube videos. Lewis said gamers who are the victims of swatting often see a boost in popularity, and sure enough, thousands of fans have pledged their support to Wachs and condemned the hoax.

“One of the most unnecessary and immature ‘pranks’ there is,” read one typical comment.

Wachs hasn’t said much about what happened, but in a video posted Aug. 28 he ruminated about swatting while playing the game “Madden 15.”

“I don’t know if these people are malicious and are wanting someone to get shot, but if this continues to happen, someone is going to get injured,” he said. “That is very, very scary because most people doing (online gaming) are good people. ... None of them deserve to get injured or shot for doing what they love.”

Copyright 2014 the Chicago Tribune