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The continued threat of ‘swatting’ in 2022

Within streaming and gaming ‘swatting’ is largely regarded as the ultimate hoax. Since the infamous 2017 case of Tyler Barris, US states have attempted to stamp out the practice for good – though instances are still occurring in 2022.

The gaming community can feel pretty toxic at times.

If you’ve played competitive multiplayer games for any significant period of time, you’ll almost certainly have received threatening messages from disgruntled opponents.

The levels of saltiness can range anywhere from, ‘I know your IP address and your account will be hacked,’ to empty promises of physical violence the next time you’re out and about.

In the real world, such exchanges would rightly be considered way out of line, but in the digital realm of PVP it’s simply become par for the course. Take it from someone whose Xbox account dates all the way back to 2008, my inbox makes for grim viewing.

Even these excessive levels of debauchery (accumulated over 12 separate Call of Duty titles, by the way) in no way compare to the most extreme form of retaliation within gaming: a practice known as ‘swatting.’


What even is swatting?

First gaining real notoriety around the year 2017, the term rapidly entered the zeitgeist with ties to extreme hoaxers in the gaming community.

The actual act of swatting involves putting a prank call in to the police, falsely claiming that serious criminal activity – for example bomb threats, murder, or hostage hold ups – is taking place at someone else’s address.

The ultimate goal, as the name suggests, is to prompt SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams or police units to swarm the victim’s property and give them a scare. Yeh, it’s utterly messed up and definitely qualifies as harassment (minimum).

If you search on YouTube now, you’ll see endless videos from recent years of livestreams being interrupted by police raids where someone presumably in the chat or just viewing has set them up.

Prolific gamers like Tfue, DrLupo, and Fornite champ Bugha have suffered numerous instances of these pranks, and the terms ‘swat’ and ‘swatting’ are now typically blacklisted within popular gaming broadcasts.

A slew of A-list celebs including P. Diddy, Ashton Kutcher, Miley Cyrus, Tom Cruise, Justin Bieber, and Snoop Dogg have also reported instances of such fraud, though the ritual doesn’t necessarily have to be specific to one target.

Several elusive social media ‘personas’ have clout-chased over the years, using Twitter to take credit for evacuating entire government buildings, schools, and recreational events through swatting.


The infamous Tyler Barris case

Easily the most recognisable and infamous case of swatting involves Tyler Barris, and just so happens to be grabbing headlines now, thanks to Netflix’s new true-crime series Web of Make Believe: Death, Lies, and the Internet.

Barris grew up in LA, California, and spent the majority of his adolescent years playing competitive video games. Upon failing with his aspirations to become a professional Halo player, he started using swatting to disrupt others at these events.

This quickly spiraled into something of a full-time vocation, in which Barris – who became known online as ‘SWAuTistic’ – built a following through swatting regularly. On numerous occasions, he made mainstream news stories and even charged others for his swat services.

Eventually serving three years (over two prison stints) for making fake bomb threats to KABC-TV and then breaking into his grandmother’s house, Barris moved into a homeless shelter where he would make his worst mistake.

After a Call of Duty dispute between teenagers Casey Viner and Shame Gaskill in which a single dollar wager wasn’t fulfilled, Viner reached out to Barris to acquire his swatting ‘expertise.’

Upon noticing that this swatting alias had started following his Twitter account, Gaskill sent a message to Barris with a fake Wichita address and dared him to ‘try some shit.’

Barris proceeded to call 911 claiming someone named ‘Ryan’ at the Wichita address had shot his father and was holding other members of the family hostage.

When the police arrived and surrounded the scene, father of two Justin Rapp (28) – who was in no way affiliated with either of the teenagers or Barris – was shot shortly after opening the front door. He would eventually die from his injury in hospital.

In 2019, Barris was eventually extradited to Kansas and indicted on charges relating to swatting along with Viner and Gaskill. He pled guilty to 51 of them and was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.

Changes to policy in 2022

The tragic case of Andrew Finch drew global attention and sparked some wholesale changes to the policy around swatting, which had remained vague up to that point at best. There’s still more to do though.

As recently as 2020, Mark Herring, a sixty-year-old man from Bethpage, Tennessee, died of a heart attack when police barged into his home. They were responding to unfounded reports of a woman being killed, and again this was traced back to a ‘serial swatter’ named Shane Sonderman.

The FBI estimates that approximately 400 cases of swatting occur annually, though experts claim that improved authoritative measures are helping to slash the number of incidents.

In Seattle, its police department has launched a specialist program for responders and 911 operators which is being shared with law enforcement across the country.

This is paired with a registry that allows citizens to forewarn authorities that they’re likely to become a target for swatting. Furthermore, once they’re targeted they can’t be harassed again.

After trained dispatchers search for clues to out instances of swatting, all information is then relayed to first responders so a change of tact can be made if necessary.

Other states such as Ohio have also been inspired to elevate swatting beyond just a misdemeanor.

In-fact, last month state senators introduced a bill to make swatting a third-degree felony, which can bring in sentences from anywhere between two to five years throughout the US.

Armed with improved knowledge and with the threat of more severe punishments, it seems we’re better equipped than ever to get a handle on the issue. Prominent US lawmakers, however, remain convinced that a uniform federal definition is key to stamping it out for good.

‘If we can speak a common language, we can hopefully press lawmakers to have a federal definition and have swatting become a set crime with set penalties’ says Seattle PD’s public affairs director, Sean Whitcomb.

 

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