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Swatting advanced from prank calls to ‘digital terrorism’: expert

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Swatting escalated from dangerous pranks to “digital terrorism” over the last 15-plus years, as societal unrest and divisive rhetoric seized the nation and created radicals hellbent on creating chaos. 

Early Monday morning, several fire departments rushed to the White House for what turned out to be a bogus emergency call for someone trapped in a blaze inside the nation’s capital.

The hoax is in the same vein as fake 911 reports about heinous crimes that got a teenage gamer killed in 2017, and created chaos at the offices and homes of political leaders, judges, schools and houses of worship. 

“I deem it digital terrorism because people committing these digital hoaxes are turning others’ lives upside down, and even, in some cases, causing deaths,” said Kevin Coffey, a retired LAPD detective with 35 years on the job who works as a safety consultant. 

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Swatting has roots that go back decades to when students made prank calls to their schools to avoid taking a test, Coffey said. 

But over the last 10 to 15 years, swatting has morphed into a sinister, twisted revenge plot that’s escalated in volume and severity while expanding motives. 

The sheer numbers are staggering. 

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There was a 440% spike in swatting incidents and bomb threats from 2022 (83 incidents) to 2023 (449), according to a December report by the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit that advises U.S. Jewish institutions on safety and security. 

Swatting was cited as the most frequent violent incident in schools during the 2022-2023 academic year, according to a report by the Education School Safety Network. 

The study found that 63.8% of all violent incidents in schools were responses related to false reports of an active shooter.

Swatting graphic showing the huge increase in school-related swatting incidents

The FBI’s swatting-related warnings and press releases show how advanced and disruptive this crime has become since 2008, when the bureau released a bulletin, titled the “The New Phenomenon of ‘Swatting.'” 

In September 2022, FBI Las Vegas said swatters “increasingly” targeted public places, such as airports, schools and businesses, as well as celebrities, versus specific individuals or residences. 

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Coffey told Fox News Digital that more recently, targets are part of tense, societal debates, like birth control and reproductive right facilities, or political figures and activists. 

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., told Fox News in January that her home was swatted eight times. Special Counsel Jack Smith, who’s handling two indictments against former President Donald Trump, was a swatting victim on Christmas. 

The list seems endless. 

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“It’s a very sad situation that’s happening today with these events,” Coffey said. 

“People are using (swatting) to take revenge on political individuals, people in the government, celebrities and even journalists and people active in their communities, and law enforcement has to respond in force at full capacity.”

That means SWAT teams, bomb squads, law enforcement officers in full tactical gear and long guns banging on unsuspecting victims’ doors because they received a bogus 911 call about a hostage situation inside, for example.

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“There’s a threat to law enforcement, but the larger threat is to the unassuming individual,” Coffey said, “because a lot of times these people are just at home, watching TV, taking a shower and suddenly there’s someone slamming on the door.”

The victim “could be thinking this is a criminal act outside” and show up at their door with a gun to protect themselves or their family, the safety expert said. 

“You can see the obvious result of what happens when someone comes to the door with a firearm, and law enforcement thinks that it’s a violent call,” Coffey said. 

What’s even more terrifying is dark web services that advertise untraceable emergency calls for a fee, and the criminals are likely not even in the country, Coffey said, and anyone could become a victim.

“It’s nearly impossible to prevent,” according to the crime expert. “Someone can hide behind the mask of someone else and cause havoc. That’s the state of affairs we have today.”

The FBI and local police departments have been cracking down on swatting incidents and creating databases. 

For example, the city of Paradise, Arizona, created an “Anti-Swatting Program,” which is a voluntary registry that helps protect residents and addresses privacy concerns related to swatting and helps first responders. 

“Swatting is a serious criminal offense. It can deplete valuable resources and put unsuspecting victims in harm’s way,” Paradise Police Chief Peter Wingert said in a statement.

The FBI launched the “Virtual Command Center,” called the National Common Operation Picture (NCOP), in late May/early June, which tracked hundreds of swatting cases in 2023, according to a report by Chalkboard News.

Fox News Digital’s Brooke Curto contributed to this report. 

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