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'Swatting': How a Hoax Can Become Deadly

Posted by Travis Uresk | Oct. 18th, 2022 | "Swatting" |

First, What Is Swatting?

Swatting is the deliberate and malicious act of reporting a false crime or emergency to evoke an aggressive response (often a SWAT team) from a law enforcement agency to a target's residence or place of work to harass and intimidate them.

Alarmingly, swatting appears to be on the rise. Kevin Kolbye, a former FBI agent with expertise in swatting, estimates incidents have jumped from 400 cases in 2011 to over 1,000 in 2019. Unfortunately, the actual number is unknown because the FBI does not track swatting as a unique category of crime. Additionally, many local police departments fail to distinguish swatting from false police reports.

The FBI has been aware of swatting for over a decade. Swatting emerged in online communities associated with gamers and hackers. For example, some gamers targeted their rivals by contacting 911 during livestreams to watch online while a SWAT team conducted a raid on their victims.

But the targets of these attacks have never been limited to gamers. One of the earliest high-profile cases occurred in 2005 when Matthew Weigman directed police to the home of a young woman and her father in Colorado to punish her for refusing to have phone sex with him. In 2018, a caller falsely reported an intruder with a weapon at the home of David Hogg, a high-profile survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and gun violence prevention advocate, causing a SWAT team to respond.

Swatting wastes resources and puts people in danger. These hoaxes take first responders away from actual emergencies, potentially endangering the safety of others. The extent of the financial burden these cases place on taxpayers vary. Following a swatting in Rochester, New York, Lieutenant Aaron Springer estimated the incident cost at up to $15,000.

In Denver, a 2015 swatting cost law enforcement $25,000, while an incident in Long Beach, New York is estimated to have cost $100,000 in 2014. These online threats are serious; they can and have led to violence. Swatting puts the targets, responding officers, and other community members in harm’s way and sometimes results in their deaths.

'Swatting': How a Hoax Can Become Deadly


JUNE 21, 2022

On the night of December 28, 2017, Andrew Finch opened his front door in Wichita, Kansas, to find a SWAT team, guns drawn. When Finch didn’t raise his arms as directed, an officer fatally shot the 28-year-old.

The police were at Finch’s home because they’d received an emergency call stating that a shooting had occurred, and a potential hostage situation was in progress. It was only after Finch was shot that police realized the call that had prompted their armed response was a hoax, a phenomenon known as “swatting.”

Finch is thought to be swatting’s first fatality, but he wasn’t its last. And until the practice is reined in, deadly outcomes will remain a concern.

In swatting, emergency services are told of a threat, such as a shooting, bomb or hostage situation, at a specific address. Often the caller, or “swatter,” uses technology like caller ID spoofing or Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) to make it appear that the call is from the same area code as the victim, or even from the victim’s own home.

Unaware that the call is a hoax, police mobilize in response. Often a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team assembles, the inspiration for the name “swatting.”

Adam Scott Wandt, assistant professor and vice chair for technology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is concerned legislation hasn’t yet addressed the tech behind the crime.

“As a technologist, as an attorney, as a former law enforcement officer, it mystifies me how easy it is to do caller ID spoofing, and how legal it is in most circumstances for people to do so, as long as they’re not doing so with the intent to commit a fraud or a crime,” Wandt tells A&E True Crime. “I’m shocked Congress hasn’t addressed that yet.”

Swatting has been happening for around two decades. It originated in the gaming community, but in addition to gamers, swatters have targeted celebrities, tech executives and others. Representative Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat, was swatted in 2016; the previous year she’d introduced an anti-swatting bill in Congress. (The bill did not pass.)

In 2013, an FBI agent estimated that there were hundreds of swatting calls a year. No national statistics track swatting, according to the FBI, so the exact number of such calls is unknown.

When Swatting Results In Death

In December 2017, two men, Casey Viner and Shane Gaskill, were playing the video game “Call of Duty.” After arguing over a bet worth $1.50, Viner decided to swat Gaskill. Viner turned to Tyler Barriss, a man in Los Angeles known for making swatting calls.

Because Gaskill had given Viner an incorrect home address, Barriss sent police to where Andrew Finch lived. Finch had no idea what was happening when police arrived at his home and he was killed by an armed officer.

In April 2020, Mark Herring, who had reportedly been harassed because he wouldn’t sell his Twitter handle, @Tennessee, had police come to his house in response to a fake emergency call. Some swatting victims have suffered heart attacks from the terror of being swatted; in Herring’s case, his heart attack was fatal.

“It’s not just the victim of the swatting that’s put at risk,” Elizabeth Jaffe, a professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, tells A&E True Crime. “Law enforcement is put in danger.”

In Oklahoma in 2015, a swatting victim shot a police chief who was part of a team responding to a hoax swatting call. Shortly before the victim’s house was raided, the chief had put on a borrowed bulletproof vest that saved his life.

The Penalties for Swatting

After Finch’s death, Barriss, who’d made the fake emergency call, reached a plea deal and accepted guilt on 51 charges. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2019.

Viner, the gamer who’d asked Barriss to make the call, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstructing justice and was sentenced to 15 months behind bars.

The police officer who shot Finch faced no charges.

Following Herring’s death, Shane Sonderman, who’d shared Herring’s address online, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and received a five-year sentence. The person who’d made the swatting call was a minor living overseas who was not extradited.

Swatters have faced charges in other cases, but it’s relatively rare. “I think that there’s probably a large number of [swatting] incidents that occur where there isn’t any kind of consequence,” Jaffe says.

How to Combat Swatting

In the absence of an anti-swatting federal statute, other laws could mitigate the practice.

“At the minimum, the legislature in each state should pass acts making sure that if [caller ID] spoofing is occurring, that it’s not being used for damaging reasons to hurt anybody. And if it is, there should be a penalty behind it,” Wandt says.

Swatters sometimes coordinate attacks in internet chatrooms.

“Web hosts should have some liability for swatting if they are made aware of it and fail to take some type of action,” Jaffe says.

The city of Seattle has set up a registry where people who think they may be swatted can add their addresses. This informs first responders that emergency calls for these addresses may be hoaxes. Other cities have adopted this practice, though it isn’t yet widespread.

Another step individuals can take is to protect their personal information.

“I think we’ve become way too comfortable in sharing our personal information in the open,” Wandt says. “And it’s going to be very easy, for somebody who’s very open, to figure out details about their lives and try to use those details to hurt them.”

In December 2020, the FBI issued a warning that swatters could use camera-and voice-capable smart devices to target the public, so password protection is also important.

Adapting emergency response practices may also deter swatting.

“My general suggestion for law enforcement is if a call comes in from a cell phone that appears to be a potential swatting case or other type of case of concern, that they use their [Enhanced 911] geotracing to see exactly where the cell phone is,” Wandt says.

Wandt says better training of emergency dispatchers is also key so that, at the same time they’re sending help to the scene, they can be scrutinizing calls to determine whether they’re legitimate.

“Law enforcement and the public sector working together to find better solutions is really what’s needed,” Wandt says.

Deadly 911 Call Of Swatter Tyler Barriss

Serial 'swatter' Tyler Barriss sentenced to 20 years for death of Kansas man shot by police

By Doha Madani

March 29, 2019

A California man was sentenced Friday to 20 years in prison for making a hoax 911 call about a hostage situation in Kansas that ended up with police fatally shooting an innocent man.

Tyler Rai Barriss, of Los Angeles pleaded guilty in November to a total of 51 charges stemming from phony emergency calls he made, including one count of making a false report resulting in a death. He admitted to years of "swatting," the act of falsely reporting a serious crime with the aim of drawing a massive police response to the home of an unsuspecting target.

Barriss agreed to serve 20 to 25 years in federal prison as part of a plea agreement, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Central District of Los Angeles.

“We hope that this will send a strong message about swatting, which is a juvenile and senseless practice," said U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister during a news conference. "We’d like to put an end to it within the gaming community and any other context. Swatting, as I’ve said before, is not a prank."

On Dec. 28, 2017, Barriss contacted police to say he was at a home in Wichita, Kansas, where he said he had fatally shot his father and was holding the rest of the family hostage.

Officers responded to the Wichita address and demanded that anyone inside the McCormick Street home come out.

Confused, Andrew Finch, 28, stepped outside where he raised and dropped his hands several times before an officer opened fire, killing him, officials said.

Who Is Tyler Barriss?


OCT 25, 2018

Tyler Barriss' considerable legal troubles have become even more complex. Late yesterday, federal prosecutors in the Central District of California filed a criminal information document that accuses Barriss of a vast new array of crimes. The earliest date back to September and October of 2015, when prosecutors allege that Barriss phoned in a series of bomb threats to schools in Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, Massachusetts, and Illinois. (Barriss said that he “evacuated” these schools because his online Halo friends were students there, and he wanted to give them a day off class.)

But the bulk of the 46 crimes detailed in the document occurred during the last four months of 2017, shortly after Barriss was released from Los Angeles County Jail after having served nearly two years behind bars. (He had pleaded no contest to two separate crimes: Making bomb threats against an ABC affiliate in October 2015 and violating a protective order that had been taken out by his grandmother in January 2017.) Those crimes run the gamut from bomb threats to swattings to bank fraud, and several involve unindicted coconspirators who are identified only by their Twitter handles: @Internetlord, @Tragic, @Throw, and @Spared.

Prosecutors allege, for example, that Barriss called police in Dedham, Massachusetts, and claimed to be an ISIS member who had planted a bomb inside a local television station; that he swatted someone in Milford, Connecticut, at the request of @Internetlord; and that he accepted three payments of $10 each from @Throw in exchange for swatting people in Avon, Indiana, and Cincinnati. The bank fraud charge, meanwhile, centers on @Internetlord’s alleged use of a stolen credit card to buy a NASA hat for Barriss, who was living in a Los Angeles homeless shelter at the time. (Barriss conducted his campaign of terror from the computers at a nearby public library.)

The filing of the criminal information document in California is part of a recent flurry of legal activity involving Barriss. On September 26, the pending trial in his involuntary manslaughter case, which had been scheduled to begin in a Kansas state court on October 1, was postponed until January 7.

That same day, Barriss was formally transferred into the custody of the US Marshals. He’s now being held in a detention center in Newton, Kansas, about 25 miles outside Wichita, as he awaits trial in the federal District of Kansas for charges ranging from cyberstalking to wire fraud. (Shane Gaskill, whom Barriss allegedly intended to target in the Wichita swatting, and Casey Viner, an Ohioan whom prosecutors claim asked Barriss to carry out the hoax, are codefendants in the case; both have pleaded not guilty.)

The California case appears likely to be rolled into the federal case in Kansas. Barriss’ federal public defender has already requested that the case be transferred to the District of Kansas, where Barriss would then plead guilty to the charges listed in the criminal information document. It is highly possible that a third federal case involving Barriss could be transferred in a similar manner: In May he was indicted in the District of Columbia for phoning in bomb threats to the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission.

The growing legal pressure on Barriss comes amid increased state and federal efforts to combat the menace of swatting. In April, for example, Kansas governor Jeff Colyer signed into law the Andrew T. Finch Act, which increased the maximum penalty for swatting to 41 years. Two months later, US Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, introduced a federal antiswatting bill. And Seattle police recently launched a program that invites people who think they might be targeted by swatters, such as high-profile Twitch streamers, to share their concerns with the cops, so that dramatic 911 calls involving their addresses can be handled with appropriate skepticism.

The California charges may heap further misery on Barriss, but that doesn’t bring much satisfaction to the family of Andrew Finch. Finch’s mother, Lisa, has directed the bulk of her ire at the Wichita Police Department, which she believes acted with extreme recklessness on the night of her son’s death. She is suing the city and several of its police officers in federal court for violating Andrew’s civil rights. Barriss, meanwhile, is someone she rarely allows herself to mention. “I’m glad he’s caught—maybe that will save other people’s lives,” she says. “But why are they just now doing this? Why didn’t they stop him earlier?”

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