On the evening of December 28, 2017, Andrew Finch faced a harrowing scenario when he opened his door in Wichita, Kansas, only to be met by a SWAT team, resulting in his tragic death at the age of 28.
This fatal encounter stemmed from an emergency call reporting a shooting and potential hostage situation at Finch's address, a call that turned out to be a malicious hoax, a practice commonly referred to as "swatting."
Regrettably, Finch wasn't the first victim of swatting, nor would he be the last. As long as this dangerous trend persists, the threat of deadly outcomes remains imminent.
Swatting involves placing fraudulent emergency calls, fabricating threats such as shootings or bombings, to prompt a large-scale police response. The perpetrators, or "swatters," often employ technology like caller ID spoofing or Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) to make the call appear legitimate and originate from the victim's vicinity.
The gravity of the issue is exacerbated by the ease with which such technological manipulation can be carried out, yet legislation has lagged behind in addressing these loopholes. Adam Scott Wandt, an expert in criminal justice technology, underscores the urgent need for legislative action to curb these abuses of technology.
Although swatting initially gained traction within the gaming community, its targets have since expanded to include celebrities, tech figures, and even lawmakers like Representative Katherine Clark. Despite her efforts to introduce anti-swatting legislation, the issue remains largely unaddressed on a national level.
The scope of swatting calls is difficult to quantify precisely, with estimates suggesting hundreds occur annually. The lack of comprehensive data underscores the challenges in combating this nefarious practice effectively.
In December 2017, during a heated dispute over a $1.50 bet while playing "Call of Duty," Casey Viner made the fateful decision to engage in swatting against his opponent, Shane Gaskill. Seeking assistance from Tyler Barriss, a notorious individual known for orchestrating swatting incidents, Viner initiated a chain of events that led to a tragic outcome.
However, due to a mistaken address provided by Gaskill, the swatting call directed law enforcement to the residence of Andrew Finch, an innocent individual who was unaware of the impending danger. Tragically, Finch lost his life when confronted by armed officers, highlighting the grave consequences of swatting.
In another distressing incident in April 2020, Mark Herring became a swatting victim allegedly due to his refusal to sell his Twitter handle, @Tennessee. The fake emergency call prompted a police response to Herring's residence, ultimately resulting in his fatal heart attack. These instances underscore the profound psychological and physical toll inflicted upon swatting victims, with some experiencing heart attacks due to the overwhelming terror induced by such malicious acts.
Moreover, swatting not only endangers the lives of its immediate targets but also poses significant risks to law enforcement personnel. Elizabeth Jaffe, a professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, emphasizes the peril faced by law enforcement officers who respond to swatting calls, highlighting the broader societal implications and dangers associated with this criminal behavior.
An illustrative case from Oklahoma in 2015 exemplifies the inherent risks involved in swatting incidents. In this instance, a swatting victim shot a police chief who was part of the responding team. Fortunately, the chief's borrowed bulletproof vest proved instrumental in saving his life, underscoring the unpredictable and potentially lethal nature of swatting situations.
After the tragic death of Andrew Finch, the perpetrator of the fake emergency call, Tyler Barriss, entered into a plea deal and admitted guilt on 51 counts. His sentence, handed down in 2019, amounted to 20 years behind bars. Meanwhile, Casey Viner, the gamer who instigated the call, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and obstructing justice, resulting in a 15-month prison term.
Surprisingly, the police officer who fired the fatal shot at Finch faced no charges, sparking controversy and raising questions about accountability within law enforcement.
In the aftermath of Mark Herring's fatal swatting incident, Shane Sonderman, who had disseminated Herring's address online, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and was sentenced to five years in prison. However, the individual responsible for placing the swatting call, identified as a minor residing overseas, escaped extradition, highlighting the jurisdictional challenges in prosecuting such cases.
While there have been instances of swatters facing legal repercussions in other cases, such outcomes remain relatively uncommon. Elizabeth Jaffe, a legal expert, suggests that a significant number of swatting incidents may occur without any consequences for the perpetrators, underscoring the need for greater accountability and enforcement measures.
In the absence of a federal law specifically targeting swatting, there are alternative legal measures that could help combat this dangerous practice.
According to Wandt, it is imperative for each state's legislature to enact laws that regulate the use of caller ID spoofing, ensuring that such technology is not abused to cause harm. Penalties should be implemented for those found guilty of misusing caller ID spoofing for malicious purposes.
Swatters often organize their attacks through internet chatrooms. Jaffe suggests holding web hosts accountable if they are aware of swatting activities on their platforms but fail to take action.
Some cities, like Seattle, have taken proactive measures by establishing registries where individuals can register their addresses if they suspect they may be targeted for swatting. This information alerts first responders to the possibility of hoax emergency calls for these addresses, although this practice is not yet widespread across all cities.
Individuals can also take steps to safeguard their personal information, as openly sharing such details can make them vulnerable to being targeted by swatters. Wandt emphasizes the importance of being cautious about divulging personal information in public forums.
The FBI has warned about the potential use of camera - and voice-capable smart devices by swatters, highlighting the necessity of implementing strong password protection measures to prevent unauthorized access.
Adapting emergency response protocols may serve as a deterrent against swatting incidents. Wandt suggests utilizing Enhanced 911 geotracing technology to pinpoint the exact location of emergency calls originating from cell phones, enabling law enforcement to verify the legitimacy of such calls.
Furthermore, improving the training of emergency dispatchers is crucial. They should be equipped to not only dispatch help promptly but also to scrutinize incoming calls for potential signs of swatting or other fraudulent activities.
Collaboration between law enforcement agencies and the public sector is essential in devising effective solutions to combat swatting. Wandt stresses the importance of cooperation in developing and implementing strategies to address this pressing issue.