This all happened last week:
• In South Dakota, someone claiming to be a 16-year-old boy called the county sheriff’s office and said he’d rigged his house with explosives, had already shot one of his parents, and was holding three other family members hostage. An estimated 15-20 officers were sent to the house to confront the shooter.
• In Michigan, a police dispatcher received a call from someone who claimed to have “had a bad night,” was “high on drugs,” was wielding a machine gun, and was going to slaughter all the hostages he was holding at his house if authorities didn’t show up within 20 minutes.
• In Alberta, someone called 911 around 11 PM last Thursday claiming a house in Edmonton contained a huge cache of weapons. “Dozens of emergency responders”—including canine units, a tactical team, police officers, and EMS workers—were sent to the scene.
• On Long Island, an estimated 60-70 “heavily armed officers” were dispatched to a house after a “young male” called the city of Long Beach’s police department and claimed he’d killed his mother and would murder anyone who showed up at his house as a result of his call.
All four incidents were hoaxes.
They are thought to be part of a surprisingly pervasive and twisted real-life game known as “swatting,” so named because the purpose is to freak out 911 dispatchers with your false tale of an unfolding bloodbath to the point where they don’t only send a few squad cars, they send a whole SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) team. The goal is to get the most elaborate police response possible—if you’re able to summon some helicopters, a bomb squad, and maybe even get a tank involved, you are one hell of a swatter.
Although swatting occurs in the real world—also known as “IRL”—it emerged mostly from the online gaming community as a hyper-vindictive way of striking back at another player who’d defeated you. Last week’s case in Long Island is thought to have erupted after the teenager in the targeted house beat the suspect in an online game of Call of Duty. As genuinely heartbreaking as it may be for a young gamer to lose at Call of Duty, swatting takes sore losing to previously unimaginable lengths. And it makes video games uncomfortably real.
According to FBI estimates, there are around 400 swatting incidents in the USA yearly, averaging roughly one per day. There are online reports of swatting hoaxes in Indiana, Washington, Connecticut, Georgia, Missouri, Florida, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York.
But swatting is not the sole domain of vindictive gamers, as modern celebrities are often targeted: Justin Bieber, Simon Cowell, Tom Cruise, Paris Hilton, Justin Timberlake, Ashton Kutcher, Russell Brand, Diddy, Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, Ryan Seacrest, Kris and Bruce Jenner, and Charlie Sheen have all allegedly felt the cold slap of the swatter’s hand. The fact that I very strongly dislike every one of those listed celebrities makes it slightly easier for me to accept the hardships they all must have endured. Not that I’m condoning the obvious crime against humanity that is known as swatting, but I must say that these celebrity swatters pick good targets.
Beyond the dark, moldy lairs of gaming losers and celebrity stalkers, swatting is sometimes also used as a political weapon. A couple years back there was a rash of swatting attacks, presumably by progressive hacktivists, on “conservative bloggers” such as Patrick Frey, Aaron Worthing, and Erick Erickson.
To my knowledge, no one has yet died as a result of a swatting hoax gone haywire. But it seems inevitable.
As a beardless youth, I was not immune from engaging in random acts of mischief, but goodness gracious, they all seem so benign now. I am guilty of the time-honored “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” and “Is your washing machine running?” phone pranks. I believe I may have ordered a pizza (with extra toppings) for someone I disliked once (or twice). I once even wrote “For a good time, call…” along with the name and phone number of a male antagonist on a public-bathroom wall.
I’ve never been rudely awakened by a SWAT team, but acting on what was a bad phone tip that my building was on fire, a dozen or so New Jersey firemen once broke into my one-room apartment while I was napping naked on the bed. I called their commander an “asshole” for busting in so rudely, and he turned out to be such an asshole, I received a summons accusing me of calling him an “asshole”—the word “asshole” was right there on the legal papers—and demanding that I appear in court to apologize for calling him an asshole.
But to send a SWAT team out to confront an enemy, a celebrity, or especially a total stranger in an armed situation where someone might get their head blown off? Now that is an asshole move.
There is one thing scarier than the fact that pasty, doughy, vindictive, maladjusted gaming nerds can summon the full power of the police state onto your front lawn with a mere prank call, and that is the fact that such a police state—with its dogs and bomb squads and choppers and tear gas and robots and scanners and trained killers—exists in the first place, always ready to strike.
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