Growing list of public and private people are being targeted by swatting attempts
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This week, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley disclosed that she recently was the target of swatting attempts at her family home in South Carolina. She joins a growing list of public and private people targeted by this potentially dangerous hoax. And now there are concerns that the tactic may be becoming a feature of political violence in this country. NPR's domestic extremism correspondent, Odette Yousef, is with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning, Odette.
ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.
MARTIN: So could you just remind us what swatting is, and why is it called that?
YOUSEF: Sure. Swatting is when someone makes a hoax call about a crime occurring with the intention of drawing a massive law enforcement presence, including SWAT teams, to a certain location. And in some instances, this has actually led to deaths. This is a fear tactic that really began in the gaming community around 15 years ago. It then migrated to the realm of extremists who were using it to intimidate and harass their perceived enemies. And so what's notable is that we're now hearing about this much more regularly in the news.
MARTIN: Does that mean it's on the rise?
YOUSEF: We don't have good numbers, Michel, on swatting over time to show a clear trend. These incidents tend to be handled by local law enforcement, so it's a decentralized phenomenon. There was a rash of these calls over the holidays targeting multiple members of Congress, billionaire George Soros and other public figures. The FBI is paying closer attention now. In May of last year, the agency launched a database to start collecting information about swatting occurrences. The FBI says it's tracked more than 500 incidents so far. That's within an eight-month period. We just don't have earlier numbers to compare that to.
MARTIN: But is there a sense that this is linked to the increasing political polarization in this country, I mean, especially now that we are in an election year?
YOUSEF: We've seen reports that are linking those things. But at this point, some say that's still speculation. Jared Holt is with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and he says that we just don't know enough about who's behind these hoaxes and what their motivations are to be able to call it a trend yet in political violence.
JARED HOLT: People that do it often do it a lot. A single individual could do hundreds of calls, and whenever they get reactions, they do it more.
YOUSEF: And, you know, there are other factors, Michel, that also muddy the picture. For example, swattings have targeted people on the right and on the left. So there's no clear political divide. A man in Wisconsin says he was swatted more than 40 times after he said on social media that he didn't like a certain comedian, and the FBI recently arrested a teenager in California, according to reporting in WIRED, who allegedly was running a swatting-for-hire scheme.
MARTIN: But, Odette, I understand that you have been looking into a pattern of swatting activity since the fall of 2022, where schools in virtually every state have been targeted. What can you tell us about that? That's right.
YOUSEF: So we were looking at a subset of swatting calls that follow a particular pattern in which the caller has an accent. They claim that there's an active shooter in a school, and they mask their location by using internet phone numbers and VPN services. Now, the FBI has been investigating this for a year now, but we haven't had any public update on where that is. But a couple of interesting things - someone claiming to be this water began reaching out to me on social media after our stories came out. Now, I couldn't conclusively verify that this was the swatter, but they were sending angry messages saying that I was the reason that their access to a particular voice-over-internet service was blocked, and they also sent messages indicating that their swatting campaign was motivated by a hatred for the U.S. and for England. Now, Meta, Facebook's parent company, shut off those accounts but declined to share further information about those accounts with me.
MARTIN: So where does this leave school districts and local law enforcement agencies? You've told us they are the ones who tend to have to respond to these hoax calls.
YOUSEF: So first of all, you know, parents and students and school staff who've experienced lockdowns because of these calls have in many cases been rightly scared. This can be traumatizing. But for local law enforcement agencies that have had to respond to these calls, this has been a kind of learning curve. I talked to Sergeant Kris Otto. He investigated one of these incidents that occurred more than a year ago in Hancock County, Ohio, where a high school was targeted.
KRIS OTTO: It kind of tested our capabilities and our knowledge and, you know, our response. That's something we obviously want to do. We don't want to plan anything like this. It's highlighted areas maybe where we can maybe improve and what worked and what didn't work.
YOUSEF: But Otto's investigation also highlighted the strain that this can put on local agencies. He actually tallied up what the dollar cost was for this response because this drew police, fire and EMS departments from the city, the state, the county, neighboring townships and may have necessitated overtime, and he came up to around $10,000 to respond to what ultimately was a hoax.
MARTIN: That's NPR's domestic extremism correspondent, Odette Yousef. Odette, thank you so much for sharing this reporting with us.
YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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