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Swatting Hoaxes Are Targeting Elected Officials From Both Parties. Here’s What to Know

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The day after Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows had stripped Donald Trump from the state’s presidential primary ballot, a person called police on Dec. 29 to report a fake burglary at her home in Manchester, Maine. Two days earlier, a man called police, with a false report that he had shot his wife and gave police the address for Republican Senator Rick Scott’s home in Naples, Florida.

On Christmas Day, a caller to a state suicide hotline invented a fake shooting to try to to get a SWAT team sent to raid Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s home in Rome, Georgia. Separate fake calls that same day sent police to the homes of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, a Democrat, and Rep. Brandon Williams, a Republican from Upstate New York.

A rash of so-called swatting calls, in which pranksters make illegal and dangerous fake emergency calls in hopes of sending armed police to raid a person’s home, have targeted political figures from across the political spectrum, raising concerns that the dangerous practice will be increasingly being used as a weapon of political retaliation and intimidation as the 2024 political season kicks off. Here’s what you need to know about swatting.

What is swatting?

Swatting is a type of harassment that involves trying to trick police into sending a heavily armed raid to someone’s home — often a SWAT team — when no actual crime is in progress, according to the FBI. Often the caller is falsely reporting a serious violent crime such as a home invasion, a hostage situation or a shooting. The harasser making the call will often use a fake caller ID, or online calling or phone spoofing software to hide their location or make it appear the emergency call is coming from the victim’s phone.

Why is swatting dangerous?

The fake emergency calls can be dangerous for both the people being targeted and their loved ones, as well as the police responding because police often arrive on the scene expecting to encounter an armed suspect or a bomb threat. A man was shot and killed by an officer in 2017 in Wichita, Kansas, when police responded to what turned out to be a swatting incident. Police in Maryland in 2015 responded to reports of a fake hostage situation and ended up shooting a man in the face with rubber bullets. Police officers also say that the fake calls divert officers away from responding to real crimes.

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Who is being targeted by swatting?

The FBI posted on its website about a “new phenomenon” called “swatting” in 2008.  In the past decade, the FBI saw an increase in what it calls “celebrity swatting”, where the victims targeted are public figures such as Tom Cruise, Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and Miley Cyrus. Increasingly, those being targeted by swatting calls are political figures as well, including a burst of such incidents reported over the December holidays. 

"I was just swatted. This is like the 8th time. On Christmas with my family here," wrote Taylor Greene of Georgia on X, formally known as Twitter, on Dec. 25. The homes of at least two other politicians—Williams in New York, and Wu in Massachusetts—were also targeted by swatting calls that same day. 

Two days later, the home of another Georgia Republican, Lieutenant Governor Burt Jones, was targeted by a swatting call. “Let me be clear — I will not be intimidated by those attempting to silence me,” Jones wrote on X. “We will put an end to this madness. We are in full compliance with law enforcement, and I am confident that those responsible will be brought to justice and be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” 

The rash of swatting phone calls continued with Senator Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican, and Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows, a Democrat. In a Dec. 30 Facebook post, Bellows wrote about the swatting attempt and other threats made against her and her family since she announced her decision to ban Trump from the 2024 ballot, citing the U.S. Constitution’s insurrectionist clause.

“Swatting incidents have resulted in casualties although thankfully this one did not,” Bellows wrote. “This behavior is unacceptable. The non-stop threatening communications the people who work for me endured all day yesterday is unacceptable. It’s designed to scare not only me but also others into silence, to send a message.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, saidd on January 3 that his home in McKinney, Texas had been targeted on New Year's Day by someone who called 911 to report a fake life-threatening situation. Paxton described the incident in a post on X, writing that he and his wife were not home when police arrived. "Making false reports to 911 is a crime which should be vigorously prosecuted when this criminal is identified," Paxton wrote, adding that he thinks the call was politically motivated. "We understand some people may not agree with our strong conservative efforts to secure the border, prevent election fraud, and protect our constitutional liberties, but compromising the effectiveness and safety of law enforcement is completely unacceptable," he wrote.

What is being done about swatting?

Some states have increased penalties for making swatting calls. In 2023, Ohio made it a felony offense to call in a false emergency that initiates a law enforcement action. Virginia in 2023 boosted penalties for swatting calls to include up to 12 months in jail. Congress hasn’t taken up a bill to increase national penalties for swatting calls. After the most recent swatting against her on Dec. 25, Taylor Green wrote on X that she intends to introduce a bill in the House that would make it easier to arrest and prosecute people behind swatting calls. 

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