On the night of December 28, 2017, Andrew Finch opened his front door in Wichita, Kansas, to find a SWAT team, guns drawn. When Finch didn’t raise his arms as directed, an officer fatally shot the 28-year-old.
The police were at Finch’s home because they’d received an emergency call stating that a shooting had occurred, and a potential hostage situation was in progress. It was only after Finch was shot that police realized the call that had prompted their armed response was a hoax, a phenomenon known as “swatting.”
Finch is thought to be swatting’s first fatality, but he wasn’t its last. And until the practice is reined in, deadly outcomes will remain a concern.
In swatting, emergency services are told of a threat, such as a shooting, bomb or hostage situation, at a specific address. Often the caller, or “swatter,” uses technology like caller ID spoofing or Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) to make it appear that the call is from the same area code as the victim, or even from the victim’s own home.
Unaware that the call is a hoax, police mobilize in response. Often a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team assembles, the inspiration for the name “swatting.”
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Adam Scott Wandt, assistant professor and vice chair for technology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is concerned legislation hasn’t yet addressed the tech behind the crime.
“As a technologist, as an attorney, as a former law enforcement officer, it mystifies me how easy it is to do caller ID spoofing, and how legal it is in most circumstances for people to do so, as long as they’re not doing so with the intent to commit a fraud or a crime,” Wandt tells A&E True Crime. “I’m shocked Congress hasn’t addressed that yet.”
Swatting has been happening for around two decades. It originated in the gaming community, but in addition to gamers, swatters have targeted celebrities, tech executives and others. Representative Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat, was swatted in 2016; the previous year she’d introduced an anti-swatting bill in Congress. (The bill did not pass.)
When Swatting Results In Death
In December 2017, two men, Casey Viner and Shane Gaskill, were playing the video game “Call of Duty.” After arguing over a bet worth $1.50, Viner decided to swat Gaskill. Viner turned to Tyler Barriss, a man in Los Angeles known for making swatting calls.
Because Gaskill had given Viner an incorrect home address, Barriss sent police to where Andrew Finch lived. Finch had no idea what was happening when police arrived at his home and he was killed by an armed officer.
In April 2020, Mark Herring, who had reportedly been harassed because he wouldn’t sell his Twitter handle, @Tennessee, had police come to his house in response to a fake emergency call. Some swatting victims have suffered heart attacks from the terror of being swatted; in Herring’s case, his heart attack was fatal.
“It’s not just the victim of the swatting that’s put at risk,” Elizabeth Jaffe, a professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, tells A&E True Crime. “Law enforcement is put in danger.”
In Oklahoma in 2015, a swatting victim shot a police chief who was part of a team responding to a hoax swatting call. Shortly before the victim’s house was raided, the chief had put on a borrowed bulletproof vest that saved his life.
The Penalties for Swatting
Viner, the gamer who’d asked Barriss to make the call, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstructing justice and was sentenced to 15 months behind bars.
The police officer who shot Finch faced no charges.
Following Herring’s death, Shane Sonderman, who’d shared Herring’s address online, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and received a five-year sentence. The person who’d made the swatting call was a minor living overseas who was not extradited.
Swatters have faced charges in other cases, but it’s relatively rare. “I think that there’s probably a large number of [swatting] incidents that occur where there isn’t any kind of consequence,” Jaffe says.
How to Combat Swatting
In the absence of an anti-swatting federal statute, other laws could mitigate the practice.
“At the minimum, the legislature in each state should pass acts making sure that if [caller ID] spoofing is occurring, that it’s not being used for damaging reasons to hurt anybody. And if it is, there should be a penalty behind it,” Wandt says.
Swatters sometimes coordinate attacks in internet chatrooms.
“Web hosts should have some liability for swatting if they are made aware of it and fail to take some type of action,” Jaffe says.
The city of Seattle has set up a registry where people who think they may be swatted can add their addresses. This informs first responders that emergency calls for these addresses may be hoaxes. Other cities have adopted this practice, though it isn’t yet widespread.
Another step individuals can take is to protect their personal information.
“I think we’ve become way too comfortable in sharing our personal information in the open,” Wandt says. “And it’s going to be very easy, for somebody who’s very open, to figure out details about their lives and try to use those details to hurt them.”
In December 2020, the FBI issued a warning that swatters could use camera-and voice-capable smart devices to target the public, so password protection is also important.
Adapting emergency response practices may also deter swatting.
“My general suggestion for law enforcement is if a call comes in from a cell phone that appears to be a potential swatting case or other type of case of concern, that they use their [Enhanced 911] geotracing to see exactly where the cell phone is,” Wandt says.
Wandt says better training of emergency dispatchers is also key so that, at the same time they’re sending help to the scene, they can be scrutinizing calls to determine whether they’re legitimate.
“Law enforcement and the public sector working together to find better solutions is really what’s needed,” Wandt says.