Swatters

Imagine for a moment, if you will, this situation:

You are at home with your family on the average weeknight  Dinner’s over and the kids are playing in the living room with the TV going in the background. You’re finishing cleaning up the dishes in the kitchen. You turn to tell your husband something funny you heard at work and one of the kids says “Mommy, there are people outside.” You lean a little to try to look toward the front window but you can’t see anything. Just as you put down the dishtowel the front door and the back door both explode inward at the same moment.

Holy smokes! Big guys dressed in black with big black guns come screaming into your house. They yell at you to get down and point guns at you. Your kids are terrified and start screaming. You try to run to the kids but the big guys tackle you, which really hurts. From the floor you see four of these guys on your staircase. They throw something up to the top. There’s a huge explosion and they go running up. Some big cop is actually kneeling on your back as another one wrenches your arms around and uses painful plastic zip ties to bind your hands together. You realize there are cops everywhere and your house is being torn to pieces as they look for something.

Six hours later they are finally gone and you are released from jail on your own recognizance. Your neighbors now shun you like you have bubonic plague. Your kids are with your parents and the next day your friends at work pretend like they didn’t see you on the news. Over the next week the detective team starts telling you that they think you were telling the truth and aren’t part of a bad bomb plot. Your life never goes back to normal.

Do you know what happened? You got swatted.

Swatting is the term used for a really bad kind of prank in which someone calls 911 and says something like their boyfriend just brought home a huge bomb and all those Iranian guys are down there in the living room with him. Or they say there’s a gang murder going on in their basement right this very second. Somebody just shot a gun and the caller is hiding in the closet.

Except that it’s not true and they are trying to get the cops to go mess up somebody they don’t like. In the example above it happened because a woman thought she was jilted and suspected her husband’s co-worker. As far as anyone has ever told me, there was nothing actually going on at work between the two. It may have been one of those close “work-wife” situations but it really looks like the husband never crossed the line. The woman just wanted some revenge and oh boy did she get what she wanted.

Usually swatters use a type of cloned cell phone, a teletext machine, or technical “spoofing” technology to hide their true identity and make it seem like their call is coming from the victim’s house or place of employment. The FBI says it first identified this kind of hoax as a separate crime in 2002 but only prosecuted the first one in 2007. According to the FBI, swatters are typically men under 30 but I doubt that is an exclusive profile. Anyone with a grudge who wants to can figure out how to successfully swat somebody these days.

Some jokes just aren’t funny. We all hate the guy who pulled the fire alarm in High School. April Fools jokes can go too far, too. Ashton Kutcher probably thought his prank show Punk’d was funny, but I doubt he thought things were humorous when he got swatted on October 4, 2012. Ashton wasn’t home but somebody used a teletext device designed for deaf people to call in a hostage situation with shots fired at his house. Three innocent workers were inside when the cops descended on Ashton’s house. This swatting episode cost the LAPD $10,000 on the police response that included a helicopter and the SWAT team.

Miley Cyrus was a victim of the same kind of swatting episode a few months ago. Apparently the police thought it was a “kidnap in progress” after shots had been fired inside. She wasn’t home either, but it was a real expensive mess. Same goes for Justin Bieber’s swatting episode which was also called in with a teletype device, just like Ashton’s. It used to be that you were only a famous celebrity if you had a stalker.

Apparently nobody has been arrested or charged in any of these swatting episodes. Either it’s far too easy to swat somebody or the celebrity swatters out in Los Angeles are really good. The one I represented got caught because she was seen on a video camera at a business while she made the swatting call. She had also done a bunch of internet searches on her home computer about how to do swatting. She didn’t plan her crime very well at all. Now she’s got some time in the state system to think about ways to do it better next time. When she gets out she’s also got a huge bill to pay to the state. From what I could tell from searching around on-line, she’s the rare exception as very few swatters ever get caught.

-Samuel Owen

Update 12/20/2012: A spokesperson for the Los Angeles police announced that they arrested a juvenile for swatting Kutcher and Bieber. Here’s what the spokesperson said: “They were able to locate an individual, a youngster, a juvenile, quite young, who was responsible for both incidences,” Andy Neiman of the Los Angeles Police Department said. You can read the news report by clicking here.

© Samuel Owen 2012. All rights reserved. Please read important notices and disclaimers by clicking here.

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