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What is Swatting? Plus, 10 Cybersecurity Tips to Protect Yourself

Jalesa Campbell
Updated Jan 7, 2021
4 min read

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) reports that about 240 million calls are made to 9-1-1 in the U.S. each year. While some 9-1-1 calls are legitimate, a fraction of them are not. Viewed harmless to some, prank calls can lead to serious consequences, and all prank calls are not necessarily harmless.

The term “swatting” has been known to the FBI for years and happens to be a new spin on an old trick — the prank call. Unfortunately, swatting has become a growing concern from a cybersecurity perspective, as some perpetrators are using security cameras in their attacks. We take a closer look at swatting, a few incidents, and cybersecurity tips that can help you protect yourself from these incidents and other cyber attacks.

What Is Swatting?

According to 911.gov, “Swatting is false reporting an emergency to public safety by a person for the intent of getting a (“SWAT team”) response to a location where no emergency exists.” Usually, the person putting out a report for a law enforcement response will say that they are involved in the incident or are a witness to “a home invasion, active shooter, or hostage situation, attempting to muster the largest response possible.”

In some swatting attacks, callers are seeking revenge on someone or reporting an incident as a prank. Prosecution is generally difficult to do because young individuals are involved, and sometimes intent is not the easiest to calculate, according to CNN. Techniques used for swatting are usually social engineering and caller ID spoofing. Even celebrities have fallen victim to swatting.

Swatting Incidents

A Grim Incident in Wichita, Kan.

The sheer danger of this practice can be seen in the incident involving Andrew Finch who lost his life at his home in December 2017.

The caller was Tyler Barriss, who did plead guilty to a 20-year sentence in federal prison. Barriss was asked by a gamer to swat an individual whom he’d had an argument with while playing “Call of Duty.” Barriss pretended to be a resident at Finch’s home and told the operator that he had shot his father and was holding the family hostage and at gunpoint. Once the police arrived, they killed Finch, who opened the door.

Security Camera Hacking & Swatting in North Port, Fla. 

A resident of North Port, Fla., Sarah Courtney, was swatted and had her Ring Doorbell Camera hacked into, according to NBC News. The perpetrator pretended to be her husband, claiming she was caught cheating and that he had murdered her. When the police arrived, they found that Courtney was safe but also heard someone speaking through the Ring camera.

[ Read: Why Hackers Target Smart Homes & 7 Tips to Protect Yours ]

This incident particularly highlights the danger of hackers gaining access to security cameras. NBC News also reports that hackers can access smart toys as well and highly recommends consumers use complex passwords, two-factor authentication if available, and keep their firmware updated.

Multiple Camera Hackings & Swatting in Chesapeake, Va.

One additional incident of hacking and swatting in Chesapeake, Va. led to the police having a conversation with the perpetrator. One family was awakened to find uniformed officers at their home who were trying to figure out where cries for help were coming from. They found the pleas coming through the family’s Ring Doorbell Camera and asked what the individual needed.

[ Read: Why Hackers Target Smart Homes & 7 Tips to Protect Yours ]

The perpetrator responded: “Oh nothing, we were just [messing[ around, after this we’ll log out, tell him to change his Yahoo password, his Ring password, and stop using the same passwords for the same [stuff]” (13 News Now).

The response was a chilling reminder to all consumers with home Wi-Fi and smart devices to use complex and different passwords for different accounts. One of the residents had this advice to give: “Make sure that you have your two-factor authentication set up…The other mistake I made is I used the same password on a lot of different accounts, just because it’s easy.” 

Cybersecurity expert Veronica Miller with VPN Overview says that some common mistakes consumers make regarding their digital safety include “using the same password for all of their platforms” and using “weak and common passwords.” This echoes the warning of the Chesapeake, Va. resident who fell victim to hacking and swatting.

To help you avoid falling victim to hacking or a swatting incident, we have 10 cybersecurity tips that can help protect you from digital threats.

10 Cybersecurity Tips to Help Protect Yourself

  • Use two-factor authentication whenever possible. Two-factor authentication is an additional step in the login process that can help protect your account. Eric Florence with Security Tech recommends setting up “two-factor authentication for all [of your] logins”. Whenever this option is made available, take advantage of it to help secure your account. 
  • Change the default username and password on your home router. When you purchase a new router, always change the default username and password as this information may be available across the internet to cybercriminals. Don’t make hacking into your home internet an easy process.
  • Use complex passwords that are hard to decipher. Include a variation of letter case, numbers, and characters whenever possible to create complex passwords.
  • Don’t use the same password for multiple accounts. Try to use a different password for your accounts. This will make it harder for cybercriminals to access your information across a range of platforms or services.
  • Don’t share passwords with anyone. To protect your information, don’t give out your password to anyone, and also don’t let another person use one of your passwords.
  • Change your passwords periodically. It’s recommended that you change your passwords every three months.
  • Be careful about the websites you visit and purchase from. Be wary of the websites you visit and order from. For online shopping, only order from trusted retailers.
  • Make sure the website is using a secure socket layer (HTTPS). Look for the lock when visiting websites to help ensure you’re browsing over a secured website. 
  • Be careful about the apps you install on your phone. Be very selective about the apps you install on your phone and computer. Not all apps are harmless. Carefully read through reviews to see if there are any complaints.
  • Be careful about sharing personal information online. Don’t be quick to share your email address or input your information into social media quizzes. You never know how that data could be used.

Safety and Security Reporter

Jalesa Campbell

Jalesa is one of Safety.com's staff experts on home security, natural disasters, public safety, and family safety. She's been featured on Today.com and elsewhere.

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