Do you remember the 1975 American crime TV drama series S.W.A.T? Or in case that’s a little too old for you, its 2017 reboot starring popular actor Shemar Moore? The series was based on the events surrounding the Special Weapons and Tactics unit of the police force. One major thing to note about S.W.A.T both in fiction and in real life is the sudden apprehension of criminals in operations known as crackdowns. They involve a lot of barging in, teargas or flashbangs and hostility, because quite frankly, S.W.A.T is only ever called in when the case is pretty severe. It’s fine when it happens to criminals and breakers of the law — but what if it happened to you? An innocent?
You could be thinking “no way” “it could never happen to me” “I respect the law and law enforcement, they’d never have a reason to do that” “I’m a law abiding individual”, but unfortunately, there are instances where it does happen. This is termed as “swatting”.
Say, you’re enjoying a nice evening at home after a really long day at work. Or a nice family dinner. Or you finally managed to score a date with a loved one and are having a home cooked meal and ambience. You could even be laid back catching up on television or whatever you do in your free time. Then comes a loud bang on your door, a smoke grenade has gone off; impairing your vision, and by the time you can make anything out in all the chaos, you’re face to face with a special unit and their guns pointed right in your face. Of course, you’re not a criminal, so eventually it may be all cleared up, but the damage has already been done. Sometimes someone gets pretty hurt — not to mention you just lost your door.
You just got swatted.
What is swatting? How do people get swatted?
If someone has access to your personal information, such as your phone number and address, and places a 911 call informing authorities that there is a high risk crime occuring at your living quarters, or indicates that you are the one committing such a crime, then that is swatting. Law enforcement will send in a team to nullify any threats, and based on the information being given to them at that moment — you are the threat. Of course it’s not true, but there’s usually no time to investigate or verify such a claim, and more often than not, the risk of having the general public harmed is unacceptable, and the authorities have to step in to make sure nothing wrong occurs. That’s why they come barging down your door.
It might be a prank, but the consequences of swatting can be very dire and dangerous. There is an increased chance that someone could get shot, hit with a projectile, present themselves as an actual threat, and just flat out be hurt, injured or even killed. Since 2005, there are over 50,000 deployments of SWAT teams to tackle high risk threats, and these units are heavily equipped. Should you fall in the category of a perceived threat, it could spell some serious problems.
As earlier mentioned, anyone can fall victim to swatting. While popular people like celebrities, sportsmen and women, musicians, actors, journalists or even politicians are at a higher risk, regular people can also be victims of swatting. In fact, swatting incidences have been on the rise, from 400 occurences in the year 2011 to about a thousand in 2020. Indeed, all it takes is for a basket case or someone with an axe to grind to provide your information to local authorities as a suspect on a huge crime and you’re officially a target.
However, just like more people are susceptible to diabetes than some others, some people are at a higher risk of being swatting victims than others. This is called a swatting risk factor; and there are three groups for this; Severe swatting risk, High swatting risk and Moderate swatting risk.
People in the Severe Swatting Risk category are usually very popular, and they are especially at risk because being in the public eye means there’s more chances someone is going to take their disliking of them very seriously. Seriously enough to make them targets of a swatting. Several celebs have been unfortunate victims of swatting; notably Miley Cyrus who has been a victim two times already, when a call reported there was a shooting at her residence in 2012 and again in 2013. Simon Cowell has also been a swatting victim, as in 2012 when a 911 call reported him to have been held hostage in his Beverly hills home. Other celebs like Arianna Grande have been recent victims as well.
The High swatting risk category involves individuals with a regular online presence and interacting regularly online with others. Most people, especially contributors to online Communities such as Twitch, Discord (for gamers) and Reddit, or people who run accounts in public are part of this group, as there is the off chance someone is crazy enough to take up a beef and call the cops on you. One of the first incidences of Swatting involved this category, after a dispute between two gamers in different states left an innocent man dead.
The moderate swatting risk group consists of people who are not regularly online, or do not have much online presence but who still have their addresses and data on people search websites. Anyone can access this information, and this puts these people at a very high risk.
How do you protect yourself from swatting?
Since it is already established that swatting is a serious case and anyone could fall victim, it is essential that you keep yourself, your information and that of your loved ones safe and away from public Access. To avoid being a victim of swatting, you can:
- Keep your details to yourself; no matter what: don’t share your location, don’t let anyone know where you live, keep your real name off social media as well as any other information that may be used to locate you or where you live.
- Take sensitive information off the web: earlier, we mentioned that people have their data on people search sites. Apparently 99% of Americans can be found on these sites, making them easy targets. These sites scrape for personal data and provide them to whoever requests for them, and that could put you in danger. You can however remove yourself from such lists, either by taking these steps, or by using the OneRep tool to help automate the process.
- Use a VPN: when you’re online, you have a specific address through which you can be located or tracked. Anyone with a know-how can use this information to find you, but with a VPN software you can mask your location and identity. You should install one as soon as possible.
- Take a spot in the anti-swatting registry: when swatting became a serious phenomenon, law enforcement decided to create a registry that could help trim the number of incidents down, with Seattle being the first to take the step. Inform local authorities about your risk of being a swatting victim, and they can take note in the event that someone does try to report an incident at your home. The police would know to approach with caution.
Swatting might seem like a fad that will “go away” or “not affect me because I’m not popular” but in truth, no one is really safe so long as they have information on themselves out there. It is important therefore that you protect yourself beforehand, so you don’t have to start worrying about replacing doors, or dealing with PTSD from a break in.