swat team laser beams

On Twitch, SWAT teams are becoming dangerous props for trolls

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Around 10pm Sunday night, Alexander Wachs was playing a computer game in his Plainfield, Ill. home. A popular streamer on Twitch, where he's better known as Whiteboy7thst, the 23-year-old boasts a legion of followers who watch him play games live, everyday. That night, fans would watch something unusual unravel on-screen.

In the middle of playing through DayZ, the post-apocalyptic zombie survival game, Wachs tells his viewers to "give me a second here." Then his screen suddenly freezes. When the feed resumes, Wachs is gone. In his place is an empty, spinning chair. A few minutes later, a police officer and a K-9 walk into screen. That's when the feed shuts off.

Minutes earlier, a hoaxster—we have no idea who—tipped police to something illegal going on at Wachs' address. It was most likely a bomb threat, though specific details on the incident are scant. Wachs had just fallen victim to a "swatting" prank. And unlike a lot of other recent victims, he ended up paying for it. While digging around the apartment, police found Wachs' personal stash of 30-500 grams of pot. They promptly arrested him.

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Popular streamers at sites like Twitch are used to abuse from their viewers: insults, pranks, run-of-the-mill trolling. Some, however, go to far more malicious extremes. Hackers have occasionally targeted popular Twitch channels, or popular streamer's online game accounts. Other have leaked personal, identifying information about popular personalities online, leaving them open to all types of harassment. But the latest harassment craze facing streamers is the most dangerous and potentially deadly yet: “swatting.”

In swatting, someone anonymously phones your address in to the police. The typical line they use that there's an ongoing hostage situation in your home. They might add that several people are being held at gunpoint, or they might skip that scenario entirely and just go with a generic bomb threat. If the call is convincing enough, police will often dispatch a Special Weapons and Tactics team (SWAT), armed to the teeth with assault rifles and body armor, to your home—hence the term swatting.

Although prank calls have been around pretty much since Alexander Graham Bell invented the phone, swatting turns a harmless prank into a wasteful and potentially life-threatening hoax. Swatting itself has been around for a while, but live video platforms such as Twitch are adding a new, voyeuristic appeal, allowing the perpetrators to watch the whole situation unfold live.

In December 2013, a particularly high profile case saw popular League of Legends streamer James “phantoml0rd” Varga being confronted by armed police in December last year. He described the ordeal subsequently on Facebook:

“Just had an automatic pointed at me, put in handcuffs and sat in the back of a cop car as I watched as 6 policemen go through my whole house.”

Although the situation was defused relatively quickly, Varga was still clearly shaken when he released a video about the incident a few days later.

“I took a couple of days break afterwards and tried to be level-headed about it all," he'd later say. "Thinking about it now I am still a little shaken up about it still, because I am remembering a lot of things that happened."

More than 130,000 people watched the incident on Twitch, the video game streaming platform that's a hub for the online gaming community. That seems to have given a new generation of trolls ideas. Over the month of July and August alone, four high-profile streamers on Twitch were victims of swatting.  And alarmingly, few have been caught, or punished, for perpetrating the pranks. It's largely a consequence-free hoax.

The same cannot be said for the victims. If the stress of having armed police turn up at your home with their guns trained on you isn’t enough, what happens after they arrive seems increasingly to be something of a state lottery.

Most victims, at least, have been more fortunate than Wachs. When leading StarCraft 2 streamer Evan “Winter” Ballnik was swatted last month, police were a little more sympathetic, quickly realizing the whole thing was prank. Even then, Ballnik said that if he hadn't been notified by a friend to contact the police prior to their arrival it could have been a very different situation.

When the swatting happened, he was living in Kentucky with his girlfriend, at an address that "isn't anywhere on the Internet or anything," he told us. He spends most of his time in Dearborn, Mich., where he's lived for 20 years, goes to school, and resides at a publicly listed address. That's the address the pranksters found. So Ballnik had no idea the police had encircled his home until he got a message on Twitch.

"My friend, who is actually my neighbour too… says ‘there are police cars outside your house and you need to call the Dearborn PD right now’ and I was like ‘oh shit, this is legit.'"

Ballnik immediately called the police.

"The officer explained to me that they were forced to search [my] home because someone had called saying [I was] holding a hostage at gunpoint.’ I told them that I definitely wasn’t holding a hostage at gunpoint in my house, or was even in my house."

The caller apparently hadn't been convincing to the police.

"I’m sure they have been prank-called multiple times and I understand that the police can’t just be like ‘well whatever, it’s probably fake.’" Ballnik said.

"I mean, they even called and knocked on the door first before breaking in to search the property. Usually it’d be a silent response with a SWAT team coming in with flashbangs and stuff. I guess I can be thankful.”

For younger streamers, the incidents can be more than an annoyance.  Ballnik has spent a lot of time trying to convince his parents that streaming is a safe, viable career. Every time something like this happens, it sets that dialog back.

“My mom never thought I should be putting my face on the Internet because there are ‘bad people’ on the internet. Now she feels vindicated and has no idea how things like this can happen, which isn’t fun for either of us. I had to spend several hours trying to explain that no one is going to come to our house and hurt us. I mean that is a literal concern of hers: That someone would come and stab me in my sleep.

Things like this really don’t exactly put her at ease."

But it could have been much worse, Ballnik says. And at least now he's established a dialogue with the police to ensure any future swatting attempts are greeted with a healthy scepticism.

Jordan “n0thing” Gilbert, one of America’s most successful Counter-Strike players, was less fortunate. He was streaming some pickup games with friends on July 10, just a few days after Ballnik's brush with the law, when he heard sirens outside.

"I have been pranked like this before, " he said. "But normally just fire trucks coming, thinking my house was burning or something similar."

This time, since the sirens weren't on his street, he didn't think anything of it. A few minutes later, however, he saw his father, just returned from work, "waving to somebody at the end of our street."

"False alarm guys," Gilbert heard his father say.

It was then that he decided to go and check what was happening. In the video, Gilbert says “be right back, I think I heard something.” The camera then shows three SWAT officers enter his bedroom with automatic rifles and start searching under the bed.

His teammates are slow to realize what's happening. But when they finally do, they shrug it off.

“Well it happens every week, so I’m sure he’s used to it by now,” one says.

According to Gilbert, who now plays with top North American esports organization Cloud9, his family knew enough about swatting to help defuse the situation. “[My father] was well aware of what swatting is, because I basically informed my whole household what might happen to me, based on previous events” he explained.

Gilbert advised future victims to remain calm at all times.

“I let them handcuff me. Me and my father then proceeded to calmly explain what was going on and the officers actually were quite responsive to my story and uncuffed us while the other officers quickly scanned my home.”

When the whole thing was over, Gilbert made sure to continue the dialog with police, ensuring that the next time it happens, law enforcement at least try to communicate before wasting resources on another hoax.

“After talking with them, the 911 emergency response unit has placed a marker near our home address” he continued. “They have a protocol when serious emergencies are called into my address. This way they will give us a call before responding with such force.”

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Swatting isn't just confined to popular streamers who broadcast the biggest esports titles. It's been going on for years—if mostly limited to wannabe hackers and trolls from the darker corners of the Internet.

In 2013, the FBI placed the number of swatting incidents at about 400 per year. But that estimate seems conservative. As the Verge reported in 2013, Google trends show a significant increase in the use of the term “swatting” in early 2013, and there have been frequent spikes since. And the FBI's methodology hardly seems scientific. The bureau calculates its number based on "local law enforcement calls received about once a month; interviews of individuals arrested; and a review of social media with perpetrators bragging about it," a representative told the Verge.

Despite this increase in awareness and the instances themselves, law enforcement seems to remain not only behind the curve in terms of knowledge, but also toothless when it comes to tracking down offenders. The number of arrests relating to swatting incidents remains startlingly low, even if there have been a few high profile arrests. In March, 2013, police busted the perpetrator of a pair of high profile swatting pranks against big-name celebrities Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber. The suspect was a 12-year-old boy.

It was inevitable that the trend would find its way into the growing world of esports, where the best competitive gamers have become mini-celebrities in their own right thanks to broadcasting platforms like Twitch. That said, you don’t need to have a huge following to find yourself a victim of swatting. Last month police raided the home of Caleb Hart, a bodybuilder and holder of numerous world records in “speed running”—trying to complete single player games in as fast a time as possible.

Hart was in the middle of a Mega Man X speedrun when the police knocked on his door. Clearly not believing what was happening, he kept playing, until it became evident the police were not kidding around.

“Who the hell did this?” he asks. “This is not cool. Why would you guys do this? Are you kidding me? This is actually happening?”

In full view of his audience, Hart then tries to explain what was happening. He shows the officers his streaming rig—and the Twitch chat. That's when one viewer, maybe the prankster himself, makes a donation with the name "F The Police" in full view of the officers. Hart is left with the awkward task of explaining that he didn’t know the people he was interacting with online—and had no control over their behaviour.

In Hart’s case, this was clearly not just a prank call designed to be an inconvenience. Towards the end of the video, the police officers start to listen to the still-ongoing call.

"The cops are in my house with a gun right now," the prankster says. "I'm gonna kill them... I'm hiding in the basement. They're speaking to my brother upstairs."

The video ends when cops realize Hart is still streaming and ask him to shut it down. There was at least one positive for Hart: He received a record number of donations following the incident. The swatting was broadcasted to about 1,200 live viewers, but his followers jumped to 22,000 not long after.

That will surely be scant consolation, however, the next time police come knocking at his door.

Photo via Jason Eppink (CC BY 2.0)