Imagine you’re at home playing a video game, broadcasting your gameplay online for your followers to watch on Twitch. Without warning, the door to your room is busted open and SWAT officers are screaming at you to put your hands up and get on the ground — all while thousands of people online get a front-row seat to the action thanks to your computer’s webcam.
This is what happens during a “swatting,” an increasingly popular internet prank where cybercriminals call in a serious crime — such as a hostage situation or shooter on the loose — in the hopes of unleashing a SWAT team on an unsuspecting person.
Cybercriminals can use a variety of technical tricks to mask their own identities or to make it appear as if the prank call to police originated at the residence of the unsuspecting victim. Police, with no other choice than to react to the severity of the crime being described, often send out SWAT teams, bomb squads, and other emergency services such as fire trucks and ambulances.
“Uh oh, this isn’t good,” a gamer named Jordan Mathewson, who streams on Twitch under the name “Kootra,” says to the camera during a live stream. “They’re clearing rooms. What in the world? I think we’re getting swatted.”
Seconds later, police storm in and Mathewson is handcuffed, searched, and questioned.
You can watch the entire ordeal below.
Eventually, the police realise that they have been duped and release Mathewson from custody, but it’s hardly a harmless prank. Taxpayer dollars are wasted on police responding to a hoax, and the buildings and school nearby Mathewson’s address were placed on lockdown due to the threat.
While most swatting attempts revolve around targeting gamers who broadcast their gameplay on live streaming services such as Twitch, celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Bieber have all been “swatted” before.
But swatting celebrities doesn’t allow the public to watch the events play out in real-time, and that’s part of the reason why gamers are consistently targeted while in the midst of playing their favourite game in front of thousands of spectators.
Unfortunately, if one of those anonymous spectators get annoyed (or sadly, just bored) with the person streaming, they can try to dig up identifying information on the address of the live streamer, usually by capturing the IP address of the person’s computer. After a bogus phone call to police, the live streamer finds themself in the middle of a SWAT raid.
If caught, those responsible for the swatting attack can face up to five years in prison. 19-year-old Brandon Wilson, known as “Famed God” online, was recently arrested by the FBI for a swatting attempt and is being charged charged with two counts of computer tampering and one count each of intimidation, computer fraud, identity theft and disorderly conduct.
For now, gamers are doing everything they can to ensure that they don’t leak any information on their location or identity to their Twitch spectators. The FBI has been aware of swatting since 2008, but there’s unfortunately little police can do but to respond appropriately when they receive such a serious call.
To get a sense of exactly how terrifying it can be to get swatted, you can watch one of the many swatting compilations below (just a heads up, there’s some strong language).