When Prank Calls Turn Deadly: How to Avoid Becoming a Swatting Victim

The term “salty gamer” is so prevalent these days, it’s basically turned into its own clichè by now. Yet… it’s true. Many online gamers thrive on rage-fueled arguments as a regular part of their gaming experience. Swatting is an extreme extension of that behavior and is sadly becoming more prevalent.

Swatting is hard to track and even harder to prosecute, so statistics are pretty much non-existent. It’s also not classified as a specific category in the crime statistics database, although some authorities have started categorizing it as domestic terrorism

Unfortunately, swatting is becoming somewhat of a trend, and even high-ranking celebrities like Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and Ashton Kutcher have been victims of swatting attacks.

To be clear, this kind of behavior isn’t limited to gamers, but is rather a symptom of online discourse as a whole. Similarly, while swatting became popularized among gamers, it has now evolved beyond that sphere, becoming a threat in the same vein as doxxing and DDoS attacks.

What Is Swatting and How Does It Work?

Swatting started out as a type of prank acted out by internet trolls, but instead of covering someone’s entire room in post-it notes, they’ll call emergency services to report a fake dangerous emergency. Their aim is to lure authorities to a location, typically their victim’s house, to intimidate and scare them.

The authorities have no way of knowing this isn’t true, assume something’s going on, and react to de-escalate the presumed situation. While the intention isn’t usually to permanently harm the victim, swatting attacks have led to victims being hurt and even killed by accident in the past. Swatting can have serious and life-changing consequences.

You’d think this would make people reconsider before trying to pull this type of “prank”, but instead, it seems to have fanned the flames. These trolls enjoy the notoriety and bragging rights from swatting their victims. The bigger the tactical response they can elicit, the more rewarding the experience, apparently. 

Some trolls specifically target streamers on popular platforms, like Twitch, in the hope that their swatting incident will be broadcast live.

When hoax callers make these prank calls, authorities often send a heavily armed strike force, also known as a SWAT team, in response. As the practice started getting popular, it was dubbed swatting — although no one is specifically credited with coining the term.

Swatting is older than you might think, though. I could trace mentions of it as far back as 2008, when the FBI posted about a new phenomenon where callers make false reports to 911 responders. It hasn’t changed much since that time, but things got bad enough the US Congress decided to introduce the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act in 2015, which amends the federal criminal code to make swatting a federal crime.

Again, while no official statistics exist, authorities have said on multiple occasions that most swatters are kids and teenagers under the age of 18. Unfortunately, it also makes this crime hard to prosecute and even harder to track since authorities don’t generally release detailed information about crimes committed by minors.

Is Swatting Dangerous?

Swatting is extremely dangerous — not just for the victims, but for the police officers involved, and for the general community. The goal of swatting is to frighten and humiliate the victim, but swatters often forget that, while they’re sitting safely far away, these situations can very quickly escalate into deadly territory. Or perhaps, they simply don’t care about the consequences.

Swatters have targeted Twitch streamers like Félix “xQc” Lengyel, Clara “Keffals” Sorrenti, Kaitlyn “Amouranth” Siragusa, and YouTube streamer Darren Watkins. These were high-profile cases that made the news, but they certainly weren’t the only swatting victims to recently be traumatized by a home raid. For some, it’s gotten so bad they’ve had to relocate.

Even so, these high-profile victims can still be considered lucky, in a sense, because their swatting scare didn’t escalate to the point where anyone got hurt.

Is Swatting Deadly?

Swatting has become a regular headache for emergency responders, but here are some of the most well-known cases when swatting led to injury or death for those involved.

Sentinel Police Chief Shot in 2015

In 2015, James Edward Holly had a fallout with his friend, Dallas Horton. He called 911, claiming he was Horton, and had placed a bomb in a local preschool in Sentinel, Oklahoma. The authorities forced their way into the real Horton’s house. 

Horton, who did not understand what was going on, thought it was a home invasion. During the confusion, he shot police chief Louis Ross several times. Luckily, Ross survived.

Andrew Finch Killed by Police in 2017

Photo of a man convicted for swatting looking directly at the camera
Tyler Barriss was sentenced to 20 years in prison for swatting, resulting in someone’s death.

In 2017, Casey Viner got into a heated argument with fellow Call of Duty player Shane Gaskill. Viner threatened to kill Gaskill, who then gave him a random address — belonging to Andrew Finch. Viner then decided to hire serial swatter Tyler Barriss (known online as “SWAuTistic”). 

When Wichita Police arrived at the address, Finch was exiting his house and was shot and killed. Bariss was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment and the gamer who recruited Barriss was sentenced to prison for 15 months. The officer who shot Finch is now also facing a civil trial. This is probably the most infamous swatting event to date.

Mark Herring Died of a Heart Attack in 2020

Photo of a news segment on a man who died from a swatting attack
Mark Herring died of a heart attack when a SWAT team invaded his house based on a fake 911 call.

In 2020, Shane Sonderman tried to intimidate sixty-year-old Mark Herring from Bethpage, Tennessee into giving up his Twitter handle “@tennessee”. When Herring wouldn’t give it up, he dialed 911 and reported a woman being killed at Herring’s house in an attempt to scare the man into giving up the Twitter handle

Herring ended up dying of a heart attack when police swarmed his house. Sonderman enlisted the help of a minor living in the UK to make the call. While the minor can’t be identified and didn’t face any legal consequences, Sonderman was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay a $250,000 USD fine.

Swatting Takes Resources Away From Important Things

Swatting affects more than those directly involved: it also negatively impacts the surrounding community. In addition to wasting emergency resources (and therefore taxpayer money) on a hoax, a swatting call takes those resources away from where they’re sorely needed. 

When police or strike forces are responding to fake calls, they’re diverted from real emergencies that might be occurring at the same time.

Swatters Turn Their Sights on Schools

Swatting hoaxes involving schools isn’t new, but schools have become big targets lately, especially in the US. Given its history with school shootings, authorities in the US take these claims very seriously and the measures involved in responding to an alleged school shooter is very disruptive to the students and faculty.

While the threat of death is fairly low in school-related swatting pranks, emotions and fear levels are high in these situations and accidents can still happen. Not to mention, it can keep authorities busy while an actual school shooting is taking place. Investigators suspect the students who attend affected schools are also behind the attacks.

How do Swatters Find Their Victims?

Swatters use a variety of methods to track down their intended victims. Those with enough technical knowledge can track your IP address, which reveals your general location, and combine it with other information to track you down. This can include any information you shared online, including your name, contact information, and photos.

Sometimes, swatters can find your house by following paper trails, especially if you own the property. They can also use social engineering to find your address through people you know online or by contacting companies that may have your information.

Swatters generally use various crumbles of information together to pinpoint your address. They generally use a combination of these methods to quickly identify you and your location:

    • 🚨 Social Media Stalking: Everyone’s done it at one point — overshare on social media, that is. While people are becoming more privacy-conscious, many still share extremely personal details about their lives online, which can include photos of their house and tagging in at locations nearby. Swatters can use this information to narrow down your location.
    • 🚨 Doxxing: Doxxing is when someone discovers your real identity, where you work, or any other personal information and posts it publicly online. Even if it gets taken down, the internet never really forgets. Swatters can easily find this information and use it to get to you.
    • 🚨 Phishing: Phishing is a form of social engineering which includes email and SMS phishing messages. If they can get hold of your email address or phone number, swatters will typically pose as a customer service agent, for example, to get the information they want from you. Sometimes, they’ll pose as friends or family and send you malicious links, infecting your devices with malware so they can spy on you.

How to Permanently Prevent Swatting

Swatters can’t target you if they can’t find information about you online or through your IP address. Here are a few things you can do to shield your personal data from swatters:

    • 🔐 Use a pseudonym or nickname for online gaming accounts, forums, and even on social media accounts where you interact with people outside your circle like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. Try to use different names for different accounts.
    • 🔐 Don’t post personal information on social media, forums, or give it to random people. Once it’s on the internet, anyone can use this information to identify you or your location.
    • 🔐 Avoid geo-tagging posts on social media and don’t post photos revealing your exact location.
    • 🔐 Contact the website or forum admin to have your personal information taken down if someone leaked your data in a doxxing attack.
    • 🔐 Talk to friends and family about what they can post about you online, and warn them not to give out any of your information to anyone without your permission — even to people claiming to be your friends or coworkers.
    • 🔐 Change your privacy settings on forums, websites, and social media to limit who has access to your profile and other data.
    • 🔐 Be wary of random emails, messages, or DMs containing links, using bad grammar/spelling, or urging you to act quickly — even ones sent from friends’ accounts. You’re likely looking at phishing attempts.
    • 🔐 Use a VPN to hide your IP address, especially if you use public Wi-Fi, use peer-to-peer sharing software, or play online games  using peer-to-peer servers like GTA Online, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and Warframe. 

Most of these tips are basic cyber hygiene advice cybersecurity experts advocate for in general. That’s because swatting isn’t the only threat you face online. Malicious threat actors can use your information to steal your identity, hack into your accounts, and even get access to your online banking details.

Does CG VPN Protect You From Getting Swatted?

A VPN is a great way to stay more anonymous online, and is a must-have tool in your arsenal if you hope to beat swatters at their own game. CyberGhost VPN secures your connection using encryption and changes your IP address by replacing it with the address of the VPN server you connect to. This has a two-fold effect:

  • Our impenetrable 256-bit AES encryption protects your online connection against being hacked by cybercriminals, especially on unsecured networks like public Wi-Fi.
  • We have fast and reliable servers across the world, giving you the freedom to change your IP address to any area so you can avoid trolls narrowing down your real location using your IP.

These two benefits add a layer of anonymity to your browsing and make it hard for people to find information about you and track your whereabouts. A VPN gives you additional protection against swatting, as well as other issues like DDoS and doxxing — but won’t protect you on its own. Taking precautions like those mentioned above is just as important. 

Protecting your digital identity and personal information requires a well-rounded approach with good habits and tools to provide multiple layers of defense.

Protect Your Digital Identity, Protect Yourself Against Swatting

Sadly, swatters use spoofing techniques and are hard to track down for several reasons. Swatting is also becoming more of a trend and swatters are increasing their efforts. Avoiding them is much easier than dealing with the fallout from being swatted. That means taking proactive measures to protect your digital identity and make your online presence more anonymous.

Think before you post online, change your privacy settings, avoid phishing attempts, and use security tools like a trusted VPN to secure your devices.

What does SWAT stand for?

The term SWAT stands for Special Weapons And Tactics and refers to highly-trained response personnel units. SWAT teams usually get called out for extremely dangerous situations requiring more expertise than regular police officers can handle. 

When people make fake emergency prank calls, they often make up stories involving extremely dangerous situations. In the past, authorities have responded by sending out SWAT teams, which is where the term swatting originated. Swatting is dangerous and can lead to people accidentally getting hurt or losing their lives. 

Use CyberGhost VPN to hide your IP address from swatters and protect your digital identity.

What does getting swatted on stream mean?

Swatters are people who make prank calls to emergency services. They give these services their victim’s address with the hopes a SWAT team will be sent to their house

Many swatters target streamers, especially gaming streamers on Twitch, in the hope their swatting prank will happen live on the stream. Swatters use a variety of methods to find out or guess their victim’s location, including tracking their IP address to get a general area. 

Along with using CyberGhost VPN to change your IP address, you should be more careful with what you share online. The idea is to make it harder for swatters to find you.

Can people swat me?

Swatters can and do target anyone. People who have been swatting victims in the past come from all walks of life, and many of them weren’t gamers either. Any malicious person can be a swatter and if they know how to find you, they can prank call 911 and send the police to your house.

One of the easiest steps you can take to keep swatters off your trail is to use a VPN to encrypt your connection and change your IP address. CyberGhost is a premium VPN with a robust No Logs policy, which means (unlike free VPNs) we won’t log your data to sell it. We even use RAM-only servers to regularly flush all user activity like it never happened.

Does CyberGhost VPN prevent swatting?

CyberGhost VPN encrypts your connection and changes your IP address to one located in an area of your choice. This limits the ways swatters can identify you and your location, but isn’t enough on its own. You’ll also have to take additional steps to protect your identity and/or location from potential swatters. Follow our guide for comprehensive tips on how to avoid getting swatted.

Along with protecting your connection and real IP address location, a CyberGhost VPN subscription also comes with other perks. We prevent your ISP from throttling you when you stream or play games online, you get to choose a new IP address from servers across the world, and you can connect up to 7 devices at a time.

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