Swatting, when online dangers become real

ELMIRA, N.Y. (18 NEWS) - In the last few years, violence and dangers taking place in the digital world of online games have crossed over into our world.

The most heard of is swatting, the act where someone locates the whereabouts of another player and bring harm to them.

"It's similar to a bomb threat," Thomas Hakes, an I.T. systems engineer for Brightworks Computer Consulting, said.

Swatting, a so-called prank that's been on the rise.

The person, also known as the swatter, calls police where the victim lives, fabricating a scenario such as a hostage situation or a shoot out. Police get sent out and at times, SWAT teams too.

"Why, and why they would endanger law enforcement, why they would endanger the victim, bystanders and all the other first responders, starting with the tele-communicators, all the way up is beyond me," Mark Cicora, the Director for the Chemung County Fire and Emergency Management, said. "I don't grasp the concept."

"Videogames are very competitive," Hakes said. "If you rub someone the wrong way and that person is very malicious in nature, they're going to be able to exploit that."

It's a challenge law enforcement agencies face. With the many calls 911 call centers receive, there's no way to determine what's a genuine call or potential swatting.

"Unfortunately, that's the times that we live in and we have to deal with that accordingly," Cicora said. "We treat each and every call as serious as it is."

On December 28, 2017, Wichita Police got a call about a shooting and hostage situation.

The call was issued by Tyler Barriss, more than 1,300 miles in Los Angeles. He gave police an address and officers soon surrounded the home.

That call resulted in the death of 28-year-old Andrew Finch. Police shot him, saying they thought Finch was reaching into in his waistband for a weapon.

Turns out finch wasn't even involved in an altercation between Barriss and another videogamer who gave Barriss a random address.

In other swatting cases, Hakes says potential swatters comb the internet, trying to find information to use to swat someone.

"Anything that they might have uploaded about their daily lives, about where they live, about who they are," Hakes explained, "they take these pieces of information and they really just use it to their advantage and kind of pinpoint where they are in a given moment and who they are."

I.T. experts say they don't see swatting going away any time soon. They say that they think it will continue to increase. They do have recommendations on how to prevent yourself from being a victim.

"I recommend obfuscating your real name, using an alias and using accounts that aren't directly related to your personal accounts," Hakes said. "If you are going to be streaming content online, be very aware and cautious of what you're uploading online and that it doesn't track back to where you live."

Depending on the jurisdiction, swatting can be either a misdemeanor or felony. It can also result in jail-time and charges.  Barriss is looking at manslaughter charges and up to 11 years in jail.

"I think the only thing we've learned is that people have progressed to a point where this is acceptable behavior in their mind," Cicora said. "I find that abhorrent as does all our first responder community."

"For a Swatter, I'd recommend do something else," Hakes said. "Unfortunately there's always going to be people like that, that are going to do these awful things."

The two closest swatting cases happened in Onondaga in 2014, and then in Syracuse a year after.

Last year in June, the Online Safety Modernization Act of 2017 was introduced in the House of Representatives, aiming to combat cyber-crimes including swatting. 

The bill has yet to reach the house floor. I passed, it would provide $20 million to local law enforcement to identify possible swatting.

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