SWATting: When Malicious Pranks Turn Deadly

Harry Coulter | 16 Jan 2018

A SWAT team in actionSWATting is the practice of calling a SWAT team (hence the name) to a location in order to harass or prank an individual and an emergency services team. Establishing the exact figures for this nefarious practice is difficult, but in the United States the FBI puts its estimate at around 400 cases every year.

While SWATting is always underhand and a waste of important resources, possibly even taking emergency services from people who actually need them, the practice recently took an even darker turn with what is believed to be the first SWATting-related death. The details of the incident are, for many people, completely unbelievable.

The Origins of SWATting

Fake bomb reports to police services have been reported since the 1970s, but SWATting seems to be different in the fact that individuals are targeted as well as emergency services. These people are often celebrities, but they could be friends or enemies of the pranksters. In a strange way, SWATting could be described as the meeting of two pranks, one in which the prankster orders of a huge amount of pizzas to someone’s house, and the other is hoax bomb calls first seen decades ago.

While the FBI first used the term in 2008 and it was added to the Oxford Online Dictionary in 2015, the word Police investigate a SWATting call“SWATting” has gained a lot more public attention in recent months. A costly prank in San Francisco was reported in early January 2018, and saw many officers engaged in a sweep of a house after a prankster made a fake 911 call and said he could hear gunshots and had heard his mother scream.

The Tragedy of Andrew Finch

The San Francisco case probably received such attention because of how soon after a deadly SWATting incident in Kansas it came. Tyler Rai Barriss, a 25-year-old man residing in Los Angeles, called the police in Wichita and said he had shot his father, was pointing a gun at his mother and younger brother through the door of the closet in which they were hiding, and had doused the entire house in petrol. He gave a Wichita address, and emergency services were dispatched immediately.

Upon arriving at the home of Andrew Finch, police could see no signs of trouble but when the 28-year-old made a strange movement and seemed as if he might be going for a gun in his belt, he was shot by an officer. The father of 2, who was in fact unarmed, died a few moments later. Finch actually had no connection to Barriss at all; the man who Barriss wanted to victimise with the SWATting prank had purposefully given him a false address.

Unbelievably, the senseless tragedy of Finch’s death comes down to an argument over $2 in the Call of Duty online game. The world of bets and gamers can get much more personal than what is seen at Android casinos, and the results can, apparently, be fatal.

A Strange New Psychology

The motivation for staging SWAT pranks is difficult to understand. Kevin Kolbye, a former FBI agent who specialised in cybercrimes, explains that for many people SWATting pranks provide a dark kind of thrill. The amount of time spent online makes it difficult to understand the full consequences of what could happen, and allows pranksters to feel more anonymous and untouchable than they would otherwise.

Cybersecurity defence attorney Patti Aftaub says that the SWATting culprits “do it for the bragging rights”, something that could be considered a disturbing reflection of the current online culture among young people. The need to connect to other human beings physically, rather than online, and to use online resources for good rather than evil has never been clearer or more urgent.