Teen arrested in massive string of swatting attacks

Swatting is an act of criminal harassment in which a person issues a malicious false threat of violence in a call to emergency services, such as the police, with the goal of triggering a heavy-handed response against an unsuspecting third party. This can and has resulted in death – but will the arrest of a notorious serial swatter call time on this unpleasant phenomenon?

Imagine this. You’re sitting at home, doing whatever it is you do. Perhaps you’re watching a family movie with your spouse and kids, slaying enemies on XBox, or sitting at your computer, trolling someone to tears on the internet while your grandmother knits a sweater in the living room.

You have no idea that your life is about to change.

Before you even have a chance to register the turn of events, your house is surrounded by fully armored vehicles, and an army of police in full tactical clothing wielding assault rifles. All lights are focused on your front windows.

You don’t know how long you’ve been standing there at the window, paralyzed with shock. Then the tear gas canisters come crashing through the windows. You don’t realize that your backdoor was smashed off its hinges and that you’re being grappled to the ground and put in handcuffs by a team of fully trained tactical response teams, pointing assault rifles at your head.

Somewhere in the terror of seeing an army of armed police yelling your name from a megaphone, the bright lights, tear gas, and being thrown to the ground, your grandmother passed away from a heart attack.

All because you made an enemy on the internet.

Viral swatting campaign

The above is a hypothetical scenario, with some elements that happened in a different swatting case. However, it is unrelated to the factual events of the case unfolding about the 17-year-old California teen known by his alias Torswats. He was arrested in January for his alleged connection to an unprecedented number of swatting attacks.

Numbers that reach in the hundreds.

The sheer magnitude of illicit activities caused large enough waves to attract the attention of the FBI, which led to a manhunt that spanned over a year in an effort to track down and capture the mastermind behind these attacks.

The high-profile targets involved in this viral swatting campaign alleged by sources close to the case include several mosques and a courthouse. This campaign included issuing false police reports about planting a bomb, as well as the use of firearms. This caused law enforcement to act to respond to the threat, which is what the teen was hoping for.

All the charges against Torswats detail what the government describes as acts of terrorism, and that his campaign was primarily focused on attacking people on the basis of race, skin color, nationality, and religion.

To emphasize this point, as reported by a news source, an individual managing the Torswats Telegram account claimed to be behind numerous false reports involving bomb threats, and incidents of active shootings directed at schools, residences of politicians, court buildings, and places of worship throughout the United States.

Last year, during a prank call attributed to Torswats which targeted La Plata High School in Charles County, Maryland, the school’s resource officer notified the caller that he was the subject of an ongoing investigation. The caller, laughing, declared, “I am never going to be caught … I am invincible.”

The thing is, days after Torswat was arrested, his Telegram account was seen online, and someone other than Torswat was behind it. It is unknown who has access to this user account.

“I am pretty sure I’ll never be arrested,” said the unidentified person in a direct message to a news source on Telegram. “Seems ridiculous that a few bucks a month can allow someone to do crazy shit and never go to jail.”

Just too many of them

Due to the relentless increase in swatting attacks sweeping across the United States, Torswats may become the new focal point for punishment of the crime by the Department of Justice (DoJ). I say this from a similar experience, because at one time I unwittingly became a DoJ soapbox during the onset of WikiLeaks, my own sentence in 2011 underscoring the severity of the government’s agenda against hackers.

Torswat’s arrest happened during a nationwide surge in swatting attacks, in an effort to terrorize high-profile figures. Since Christmas alone, these attacks have ramped up against major politicians, and judges involved in cases concerning former US President Donald Trump, as well as the director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Over the past year and a half, hundreds of schools and other educational institutions have been terrorized by swatters. One such law enforcement response involved an officer driving his patrol vehicle through the front door of a school in response to a swatting call. No doubt, while the swatters laughed.

Screenshot of swatter advert online
Swatters can sometimes advertise their 'services' online, just like other kinds of cybercriminal

While researching this story, I happened to find several Telegram channels that allegedly appeared to be directly associated with Torswats. The posts suggest Torswats or someone connected to them was operating a marketplace soliciting descriptions of different trolling or swatting tactics along with the price for each service.

In May last year, the FBI set up a database to monitor and deter swatting attacks, which helped the agency pinpoint 129 occurrences that following month. However, before this investigative resource database was launched, it was difficult for law enforcement to identify and track these attacks.

In the United States, the crime of swatting can carry a hefty price. In prison, such a person will not be championed as a hero. I served time alongside several individuals locked up for swatting in Texas. One received an 11-year sentence in federal prison, another got nine. The point is, if you get caught and convicted, you’re done.

Earlier this January, Florida Senator Rick Scott, who was also the victim of a swatting attack, introduced a new bill proposing to increase the maximum jail sentence to 20 years, if passed. That’s something, considering there is no specific federal statute that identifies and criminalizes swatting.

Rather, all the criminal elements a bad actor may use in the commission of a swatting attack are focal points in prosecuting these kinds of cases. Swatting violates a slew of federal and state laws, although, at the federal level, it can constitute several specific felonies.

The following is a modest list of specific crimes: false reporting to induce an emergency response, anti-terrorism legislation, stalking, internet threats, wire fraud for using the phone or internet to distribute false information with the intent to provoke a law enforcement response, and even fraud and related activity in connection with computers used in interstate commerce.

None of these are specific to swatting but they all pertain to elements of the crime.

The problem is, that there is an avalanche of online resources that address the illegality of swatting, but there appears to be little or no adopted standard that agrees how to define or criminalize it. Because each criminal element mentioned above carries its own prison term, getting to the bottom of a case can be daunting.

In other words, it can range anywhere from a Class A misdemeanor to a third-degree felony depending on the events that unfold, and if the suspect has any prior criminal convictions. A third-degree felony can carry anywhere between two and ten years in prison, which includes a maximum fine of $10,000.

The first swatting-related death occurred in 2017 in California, and the perpetrator of the hoax call to emergency services was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to 51 charges.

It all depends on the circumstances but without a clear definition, there can be no deterrence. And if the courts do not develop a standard that defines the consequences, swatters will not be afraid to commit the crime.