Early this year, police in Howard County, Maryland, got a 911 call from a 20-year-old local man named Tyran Dobbs. He said he was holding three women hostage in his house and would execute them one by one if he wasn’t given a $15,000 ransom. The countdown had already begun. Authorities had 15 minutes to save the first hostage. When police raided the house, Dobbs was shot with multiple rubber bullets. The shot to his face would require reconstructive surgery.
That use of force might have been justified, if Dobbs had actually been a legitimate hostage-taker. In actuality, the 911 caller claiming to be Dobbs was playing a particularly mean-spirited and reckless prank. The people at Dobbs’ house were friends, and they were there willingly. The call was intended to send an army of police to Dobbs’ house in an attempt to wreck havoc.
The practice is called swatting and the incident with Dobbs marked the fourth time in a year it had happened in Howard County alone. The FBI estimates that around 400 swatting attacks occur in the United States every year. Most closely associated with online gamers using it to attack opponents offline, swatting has become an increasingly troubling phenomenon for law enforcement, who are obligated to respond to virtually every call with the utmost seriousness.
Earlier this week, federal lawmakers attempted to fight back. On Wednesday, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) introduced the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act, which would make swatting a felony. Depending on the ultimate consequences of the attack, a swatting conviction under this law could result in anywhere from five years to life in prison. The swatter would also be required to pay remuneration to the victim and law enforcement for the cost of expenses—medical or otherwise—related to the call.
“Perpetrators of these hoaxes purposefully use our emergency responders to harm their victims,” Clark said in a statement. “These false reports are dangerous and costly, and have resulted in serious injury to victims and law enforcement. It is time to update our laws to appropriately address this crime.”
Clark has long been one of the strongest advocates in Congress for the government cracking down on online harassment. She wrote an op-ed in The Hill calling out the threats against female gamers made by the controversial reactionary video game culture reform movement Gamergate and urged the Department of Justice to more aggressively go after “cyberstalking.”
Calling in fake bomb threats or terrorist attacks is already a criminal offense; however, that statute doesn’t cover other threats. This bill is an attempt to close that loophole.
Some states, like California, already have laws on the books specifically addressing swatting, but, as Motherboard notes, someone from New Jersey can easily swat someone all the way on the other side of the country. In that case, bringing the offender to justice would require an extradition process law enforcement may deem not worth the hassle. Criminalizing swatting at the federal level would involve federal law enforcement and make bringing the offender to justice easier, regardless of his or her geographic location.
“Our law enforcement personnel are already struggling to protect our communities with limited resources,” Meehan charged in a statement. “The wave of swatting incidents are costing our police departments time and tax dollars. Swatting cases divert attention from serious situations that require the attention of highly trained personnel and puts innocent civilians at risk. This legislation updates federal statute and makes it clear that ‘swatting’ is no joke.”
This bill isn’t Congress’s first attempt to pass legislation about swatting. Earlier this year, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced the SWAT Act and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) brought his own Anti-Swatting Act. Neither broke through the legislative morass to reach the president’s desk.
However, as cybersecurity journalist Brian Krebs—who has been a victim of swatting attacks as a result of his dogged reporting about the activities of online crime rings—notes, the proposed legislation has a major blind spot.
“A huge percentage of those involved in swatting are under the age of 18, and the federal justice system simply isn’t built to handle juvenile offenders,” Krebs writes. “As a result, most cases of youths detained for swatting are handled by state and local authorities. Thus, unless more states pass anti-swatting laws, many of these crimes likely will continue to go unpunished.”
Illustration by Max Fleishman