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Marketplace

Swatting: not a new phenomenon, but the cost is rising

Ben Johnson May 19, 2015
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By now, a lot of video gamers and law enforcement officers are familiar with the viral video below. It’s professional video gamer Jordan Matthewson, a.k.a. Kootra, doing what pro gamers like him do: broadcasting his gameplay to viewers from his offices in Littleton, Colorado. In the middle of tactical movements with his teammates online, Matthewson is interrupted by sounds of police activity down the hall in real life. Moments later, he’s forced to the ground by a real SWAT team.

 

Matthewson was the victim of a prank called “swatting.” It’s been around for decades, and it works like this: a prankster calls an emergency hotline claiming to be at the scene of a hostage situation — sometimes the perpetrator of said hostage situation — sending police and other first responders to an address, weapons and gurneys at the ready. But the prankster isn’t actually at the location, and instead law enforcement surprises unsuspecting targets at the address.

For hackers, new technology is making swatting both easier to pull off and more attractive. The rise of live-streaming video games and other content online means the potential audience for swatting has gone from a few targets and the people sent to check up on them to thousands, or tens of thousands.

For emergency call centers, fighting swatting or distributed denial of service attacks is a perennial cost. Christopher Carver is a director at the National Emergency Number Association in Virginia. He says that the process of updating emergency call center systems has a price tag “in the billions.” These days, a 911 dispatcher can see caller ID and location information in a matter of seconds. But now that a majority of calls can come in from smartphones or over online services like Skype or Google Voice, there are also more tools to “spoof” the location of a call.

Spoofing is a hacker method that is used in lots of different ways. Alisdair Faulkner, chief products officer at the security firm ThreatMetrix, says it’s one of the most common tools for hackers to take your identity. Swatting attacks from British Columbia to Florida have been made possible in part thanks to the use of spoofing.

Last month in the city of Rochester, New York, Lieutenant Aaron Springer and his 30-member SWAT team got a taste. They raced to a residential building where there was actually no hostage situation. Springer says swatting set his department back “maybe $1,500, maybe $3,000.” When you add 30 more officers sent to the scene to direct traffic, the fire department, an ambulance, and multiple department chiefs, Lieutenant Springer ballparks the total cost closer to $15,000.

Springer says swatting doesn’t happen often enough to make a big change to operations—the last occurrence was several years ago—but the growing costs to law enforcement and emergency services helped inspire New York Senator Chuck Schumer to introduce a piece of legislation that would carry stricter punishments for swatting.

Lieutenant Springer is worried about a different cost; that he’ll hesitate the next time his team gets a call, in a scenario when every second counts.

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