In late August 2014, a fifteen-year-old online gamer, Paul Horner was sentenced to twenty-five years to life in prison for his role in a devastating online prank. Horner is the first person in history to be charged with what is known as ‘swatting,’ a growing trend in which a person anonymously files a false police report, such as a murder or a bomb threat, in hopes of provoking the police to raid an individuals home or business. Swatting is a new fad among gamers targeting those who livestream, broadcasting themselves and their game play live over the internet to fans and in-game rivals. If a gamer is able to ascertain the personal information of a rival, by locating their IP and residential address, they can call in dangerous threats to law enforcement and watch as the livestreamer’s house is forcibly entered by police.

Law enforcement agencies say that the practice wastes valuable resources and places innocent people in harm’s way. Upset after being repeatedly beaten by a fellow gamer, Horner called the police and reported a murder/hostage situation at the home. SWAT team then raided the house, shooting and critically injuring the gamer’s father in the process. Following an investigation of the incident, Horner was found guilty of two counts of domestic terrorism, related to his manipulation of an enforcement response, and injuries to innocent people resulting from those actions.

Most of the people who engage in swatting are serial offenders also involved in other cyber crimes such as identify theft and credit card fraud. Unfortunately, swatting isn’t an easy crime to charge; law enforcement is still developing a language for it. Is it a type of fraud? Identify theft? Cyberterrorism?  Is it just a prank? Three federal lawmakers recently introduced bills to create penalties for swatting, but right now, most swatters are charged with misdemeanors. Additionally, many swatters operate from outside of the United States, so even if law enforcement agencies can trace these swatting attacks, which can take months if not years, swatters are often unextradictable.  Swatting incidents are becoming increasingly frequent and are not adequately addressed by our legal system. It will be interesting to see how the law evolves to handle this emerging threat.

Megan McLean

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