Swatting 101… and What Do We Do About it?

February 21, 2013

Todd Piett

While not a new phenomenon (see this bulletin from the FBI from 2008: http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2008/february/swatting020408 ) , recently “swatting” has moved from an obscure problem faced by 9-1-1 centers and first responders to the public lexicon thanks to a number of high profile events.  From Tom Cruise, to Chris Brown, to Justin Bieber, no one is immune to being targeted by offenders looking to trick public safety answering points and dispatchers into sending police and first responder teams on bogus emergency calls.  Let’s take a high level look at how swatters falsify emergency calls for service.

1)      Call directly into a local 9-1-1 center using their administrative lines, avoiding the location based routing of calls and providing false information about the location of the call.  Normally, the 9-1-1 center is provided with a valid call back number which can be easily traced so this method is not normally used by swatters.

2)      Caller ID Spoofing.  There are a number of services that allow you to spoof your caller ID and effectively fake the ANI used by 9-1-1 to look up location information on a landline or VOIP caller.  Essentially a call can be made from almost anywhere and appear to be coming from a different phone number and location.

3)      Non-initialized phones.  These phones are not easily trace-able as there is no service provider or call back number associated with them; however, they are routed based on location so the caller does have to be in the actual area of the incident they are reportedly calling about.

Swatting is not a harmless prank.  Rolling emergency responders is inherently dangerous, expensive and pulls critical resources away from other actual incidents.  Thankfully, as the true cost of these incidents comes to light, technologies and procedures are advancing that are helping to more rapidly locate and effectively prosecute swatters.  Additionally, some of the capabilities being developed for NG9-1-1 will make the spoofing of calls far more difficult.  In the meantime, strong enforcement and punishment of offenders and a robust public education effort is necessary.  The question becomes, how do you educate without stirring up more offenders?  Thoughts?

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