Anyone can be a swatting victim — gamers, celebrities, and people who live a simple life. If your information is online, you’re at risk of becoming a swatting target.
Just imagine: it’s 5 o’clock in the morning. You are sleeping quietly in your bed, hugging your loved one. Your little child is sleeping in the room next door. The next moment a terrible noise wakes you up. What is it? It’s a SWAT team forcing their way into your home, but you have no idea it’s them. A few moments later, you find yourself on the floor with your face down while a team of heavily armed men yell at you and direct their weapons at you. Your child is screaming in the room next door.
You’ve just been a victim of swatting. Let me explain what it means:
Swatting is when someone takes your address, calls 911 under your name, and informs them that some sort of mortifying crime is unfolding at your place. The caller may even label you as the one committing the felony. Sometimes swatting can cause injuries or even death. It’s a horrible, horrible prank.
Kevin Kolbye, current assistant police chief of Arlington, Texas and former FBI swatting expert, claims that the number of swatting incidents continues to rise. And when you look at the stats, it’s easy to see he’s right. The total incidents have gone from around 400 in 2011 to over 1,000 today, making it essential to do whatever you can to protect yourself.
Swatting can happen to you, your neighbor, me, and to just about anyone in this country. You don’t need to be a celebrity, a popular gamer, or a social media influencer to be swatted. It is enough to have your address published somewhere online and to cross roads with someone crazy enough to organize a swatting attack against you.
Your swatting risk factor
We’ve taken the time to collect incident stats, allowing us to analyze which groups of people are more at risk. Want to know which risk group you fit into? Read on to find where you stand, so you can take the appropriate measures to reduce your chances of being swatted.
Risk group 1: severe swatting risk
- Celebrities and public figures
- Social media influencers (Instagram, TikTok, YouTube bloggers, popular video game streamers)
In 2013 alone, several celebrities were victims of swatting — Sean Combs, Miley Cyrus, Chris Brown, Justin Bieber, Jason Derulo, Ashton Kutcher, Tom Cruise, and the list goes on.
And it’s not just smart teens or adults playing tricks, it’s kids, too. A 12-year-old boy admitted to targeting Bieber, Kutcher, and even a bank. When he directed authorities to Kutcher’s house, he said that people were inside the actor’s home with explosives and guns and that there were shooting victims.
Risk group 2: high swatting risk
This group includes people that interact online with others. You are at risk if you are:
- An active contributor to any online community
- An average online gamer
- Active on social media (you share your thoughts and stories a lot, you comment a lot, and your account is not in private mode)
In November 2019, Adam Mosseri, an avid user and chief of Instagram, became a swatting victim. In this incident, one or several callers told authorities that there was a hostage situation going on in Mosseri’s home. A SWAT team arrived and barricaded the streets outside. It was a close call for the senior executive and his family and hours passed before the police realized it was a hoax call.
Sometimes you don’t even have to be active on social media. All you need is a username that some people may find attractive. Such is a shockingly sad story of Mark Herring, 60, who refused to give up his coveted Twitter handle @Tenessee and died of a massive heart attack in April 2020 as a result of a brutal swatting incident arranged by a 20-year-old perpetrator who wanted to get the lucrative username and then resell it.
Risk group 3: moderate swatting risk
People who are not active online, but who have their contact details — phone number and home address — published by people-search sites like MyLife, Spokeo, Whitepages, Instant Checkmate, and many others. These websites collect your data and share your profile for profit. Not only do they expose your name, address and other contact details, but they also share info on your family, and a plethora of other data like your financial status, property ownership details, bankruptcy and business records, and so on. And unfortunately, 99% of Americans have personal data on people-search sites.
To make matters worse, anyone can access the information presented on these sites. Therefore, if someone wants to get you back for something, they can always find your information on these web pages and prank call the cops under your name, and direct people to your home.
But sometimes you don’t even need a personal enemy to be put in harm’s way. And one infamous incident shows why:
In 2017, in Wichita, Kansas, Andrew Finch was shot dead because he just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It all started over a Call of Duty: WWII argument that had to do with a $1.50 bet. Two of the players involved, Shane Gaskill and Casey Viner, got in a fight over losing the bet. Viner threatened to swat Gaskill, so Gaskill gave out his old address and said that he “would be waiting” for the SWAT team to arrive.
The caller, Tyler Barriss, speaking in the first person, claimed that he had killed his father, was keeping other members of the family at gunpoint, and he was going to burn the house down. The police then showed up, but Gaskill wasn’t living there, Finch was. And as the young, innocent man was leaving his home, police officer, Justin Rapp, shot and killed him.
How to protect yourself
It’s easy to see that swatting has become a genuine threat for many. No matter whether you’re a gamer, have published articles sprawled online, work a casual job, are a stay-at-home mom, or are a celebrity – everyone is at risk.
Before unveiling more swatting-related stories, let us arm you with some actionable tips on how to get your information off the web to make sure you avoid becoming yet another swatting incident statistic.
Tip #1: Do not leak your details
Due to the heightened swatting incidents on gamers, they’ve had to learn how to adapt. What do they do? They don’t share any information unveiling their location or identity to their Twitch spectators. And you should apply this tactic to your social media profiles.
Just think of all of the people who can find out your location from Instagram stories or tags. Plus, people can always copy and paste your name into a people-search site and find out your address and other personal data.
Our advice? Don’t use your full name on social media. Maybe use a nickname or your middle name instead of your first name.
Know that when your data is sprawled across various web pages, it’s out of your control. Anyone can access your information and do whatever they please with it — including swatting. You may feel safe on screen, but when someone knows your personal details, they can endanger your life in real life.
Tip #2: Don’t overshare personal information with strangers
When you share photos, location details, financial and payment details, passport or ID details, driving licenses, and other personal documents or passwords online, you propel the risk of experiencing identity theft, a financial attack, and cybercrime.
Try to avoid sending personal information, like credit card details or anything via Facebook messenger, too. You never know who can hack into your account and read that information.
It’s also advised to make your Instagram account private! You may risk losing a bigger following, but at least you can control who can view your photos.
What should you do after you remove your personal data from social media platforms? Get your information off of people-search sites.
Tip #3: Remove sensitive information from the web
You may think it’s good enough to remove your personal details from social media, but you need to get your info off of people-search sites, too. Remember that they can collect and display your data without you even knowing!
Thankfully, you can opt out of people-search sites. Here’s how:
You can go the free route and manually remove your data from these sites. Start by following our step-by-step opt-out instructions here. It’s vital to note that data broker sites tend to show your information again a few months later, so be sure to check back again and again. However, if you’re not in the mood to put in much effort, you can always check out our OneRep tool, which will automatically take your info off of data brokers for you.
This tool removes your information from 199 data broker sites, and it continues to monitor the web to make sure your information remains private.
Tip #4: Secure your IP address and establish a VPN
It’s also super beneficial to install VPN software. Not only will a VPN protect your information from hackers and prying eyes, but it will allow you to change your IP address, too, which will prevent people from being able to locate you.
Plus, a VPN allows you to find out which country has the best Netflix. It’s a win-win!
Tip #5: List yourself in an anti-swatting registry
You can inform the police that you fear becoming a swatting victim, and they will attach this information next to your address. Therefore, if you do become a victim of this horrible prank, the police will enter your home with caution rather than burst through your door.
Seattle launched the first anti-swatting registry — they said it only took them three months. Your city may not have something as official as an anti-swatting registry, but it’s still worth asking what they can do to help combat your fear of swatting.
Not convinced that you need to take action to protect yourself from swatting? Read on for some real-life stories of both famous and completely ordinary people who became victims of this cruel prank. These events will give you a detailed insight into how swatting began, and why it’s something you need to take seriously.
Swatting history and stories of its survivors
So, how did swatting begin?
When did people start swatting? Some may link the horrific prank back to the 1970s when hoax callers would talk about a potential bomb going off at a public space, resulting in police evacuating the entire building. But the art — for lack of a better word — has evolved into a more refined system that works to hide the caller’s identity.
Nowadays, the caller can call from another country, but under a fake phone number, which fools emergency services into believing the call is from their same city.
In 2008, the FBI coined the word swatting. And Oxford Dictionaries Online recognized it as a legit word in 2015 — you know it’s a real thing to worry about when the Oxford Dictionary says it’s a word!
Swatting began as a cruel trick on celebrities and influencers and continued as a major threat in gamer communities.
More real-life cases
David Hogg swatted
In 2018, a prank caller directed a SWAT team to David Hogg’s home. The hoax call stated that someone was in the recent graduate’s address with a weapon, prompting the SWAT team to don their gear and attack Hogg’s home — only to find out that nothing was going on. Apparently, the gun-control advocate and his mom were away on a trip to accept an award for human rights.
But here’s one thing you need to know:
Hogg had just survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School a few months prior to this swatting incident. In fact, the school shooting became the starting point for his activism work in the first place.
In August 2019, Kyle “Bugha” Giersdorf, who was just fresh off of winning $3 million after becoming the champion of the solo edition of the Fortnite World Cup, became a swatting victim.
The 16-year-old was live streaming on Twitch when he suddenly dropped out of the screen. Eventually, he returned and informed his viewers that he had been swatted. The gamer explained that a SWAT team stormed his home with guns. But thankfully, one of the officers lived in the area, so the situation fizzled pretty quickly.
He was one of the lucky ones.
Gamer, Jordan ‘Kootra’ Matthewson became yet another target of the vicious prank.
The popular gamer was live-streaming when a SWAT team entered his home. He managed to tell his viewers, “They are clearing rooms. What in the world? I think we’re getting swatted.”
It turns out that the caller said that Kootra had shot two of his co-workers and that he was pointing a gun at another one.
Kootra didn’t suffer any injuries, but it’s safe to say that the whole ordeal was likely very terrifying.
Ice Poseidon swatted
When Paul Denino (you may know him as Ice Poseidon) was on American Airlines Flight 458 in 2017, he became yet another swatting victim. Someone had called in, using Denino’s name, saying that there was going to be a bomb. Naturally, the authorities removed Ice Poseidon and another person from the flight. The incident even prompted Twitch to ban the popular gamer from its platform.
We’re all at risk
Still don’t believe that swatting can happen to you? The following incident proves that this vicious prank doesn’t just happen to gamers or celebrities:
In 2015, Dallas Horton suffered a plethora of injuries due to a swatting incident. The call informed authorities that Horton had planted a bomb in a nearby preschool. When the police broke into his house, Horton opened fire not realizing what was actually going on. Thankfully, Chief Louis Ross was donning a bulletproof vest.
Reports after the incident revealed that Horton had no clue that the authorities were entering his home, and he wasn’t tied to the phone call. Eventually, someone named James Edward Holly admitted to making the call because he was mad at Horton.
So, it can happen to anyone — even your regular, everyday folk who work a 9-5 job, come home, watch Netflix, eat dinner, and go to bed.
And it’s not like the police officers can say no to a swatting call. They have to take every call seriously. Can you imagine what would happen if they didn’t respond to a legitimate call? The SWAT team is there to neutralize a criminal threat and will use extreme force if they have to.
With this in mind, you need to do whatever you can to take care of yourself. Let’s summarize how:
- Don’t leak or overshare personal information online
- Remove your profiles from sites that publish your data for profit
- Mask your IP address to increase security
- Take all reasonable steps to avoid danger—find out if there is an anti-swatting registry in your state and list yourself
If, despite taking the above security measures, you still become a victim of swatting, try your best to stay calm. It may be scary, horrifying, time-consuming and what not, but it will eventually settle. After all, your life is more important.
Wish to explore this topic further? Take a few minutes to read this series about workplace violence, violence against nurses and how to prevent workplace violence. Also, check out what a data breach is and how to spot a phishing email, and read how to protect your online accounts by increasing your password security and enabling 2 step verification.