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PSA: SWATTING ATTEMPTS ON POLITICIANS PROMPT LEGAL RESPONSE, EXPECTATIONS FOR IT TO GET WORSE WITH THE UPCOMING 2024 ELECTION

Dan Flanagan, Giulia Filomia, Jennifer Radlinsky - Counter Threat Strategic Communication Team

Jennifer Loy, Chief Editor

Date March 21, 2024


Swatting has Become a Serious Concern[1]


Introduction

On Monday, March 11, the Georgia State House voted 162-2 for Senate Bill 421, which increases punishments for swatting.[2] This involves the act of fraudulently calling the police to report a false emergency, like shootings or bomb threats, leading to the deployment of SWAT teams.[3] The bill was sent back to the Senate as the House added drive-by-shootings,[4] increased punishments for falsely reporting public harm and revised compensation for this offense, in addition to other changes.[5] In December, numerous Georgian elected officials were subject to swatting calls. These included Lieutenant Governor Burt Jones and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Under current Georgia law, making false reports is a crime, and the first offense results in a misdemeanor, unless it is directed to critical infrastructure.[6] Increasing incidents will very likely prompt legislative action in other states, likely following Georgia’s model in drafting anti-swatting laws. Individuals involved in elections will almost certainly remain targets and will likely need to invest in additional security measures to ensure their personal and staff safety. Law enforcement will almost certainly re-evaluate current protocols for handling swatting calls, likely to reflect the frequency and evolution of the threat environment.


Summary

Swatting has increased in popularity, often targeting politicians, schools, synagogues, homes,[7] mosques[8] and churches.[9] The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began reporting on the dangers of swatting in 2008. Swatting plots can be complex, spanning multiple states and persons collecting target information. In some cases, they could exploit technology and make it appear as if the calls came from the victims.[10] By 2019, according to a report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), there were 1,000 swatting cases each year. As cases increased, so has the technology enabling perpetrators to continue, including concealment of the caller’s voice, phone and IP address to make the calls appear real. In May 2023, the FBI formed a national online database for law enforcement agencies to share information on swatting.[11] According to Assistant FBI Director Cathy Milhoan, swatting calls "appear to be originating from outside of the United States."[12] Federal agents have lately identified a Serbian individual who is linked to more than 100 swatting cases, including attacks on Alejandro Mayorkas, the Homeland Security Secretary, and Jen Easterly, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director.[13] Each swatting incident generally costs at least $10,000, excluding investigation costs.[14] Rep. Tyler Paul Smith said swatting calls can cost law enforcement $15,000 to $25,000, which is passed on to taxpayers.[15] 


Prior swatting cases of election officials occurred especially between December and January. During the Christmas holidays, many Georgia Republican members were victims of swatting, including Taylor Green, who was swatted at her residency in Georgia and her office in Washington DC.[16] Members of the Democratic Party have been subject to swatting attacks; Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows ordered the removal of former President Trump from the state’s presidential ballot and was targeted. Following her election as Mayor of Boston in 2021, Michelle Wu has had numerous swatting calls made against her.[17]


Judiciary members involved in cases against former President Donald Trump have been subject to swatting threats. Special counsel Jack Smith’s home was involved in a fake emergency phone call on Christmas day; Smith and his family have faced multiple threats and acts of intimidation after his appointment. According to court documents, Trump has posted messages online referencing Smith and his family. In New York, Judge Arthur Engoron was subject to a bomb threat at his home, and a fake shooting was reported at the home of Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington, DC.[18] 


Analysis

Swatting attacks will almost certainly increase against popular and controversial politicians as the 2024 election approaches. Third-party international threat actors will almost certainly increase swatting calls in rural and suburban locations, very likely targeting smaller jurisdictions with fewer resources where election officials live. They will likely target politicians in critical election locations, very likely accompanying swatting calls with disinformation campaigns to reduce their favorability.


Election season will almost certainly increase swatting calls, very likely endangering the lives of candidates and officials involved in the process. Negative rhetoric will likely put officials at higher risk of swatting, necessitating personal security and increasing communication with local police and the FBI. Rising response costs will likely increase requests for additional funding from the state and federal government to offset individual security costs, very likely increasing the federal government’s economic burden.


Law enforcement will likely need training on assessing emergency calls for swatting evidence and safe responses. Police vetting of potential swatting calls will almost certainly undergo rigorous examination, very likely delaying responses to emergencies. Information sharing among police departments and federal partners will likely lead to a more efficient response to swatting attacks. Collaborating with tech companies will likely increase the prevention of swatting attacks, as experts working with caller verification systems will likely identify attackers and threats.


The passage of anti-swatting laws will very likely gain momentum in state and local governments, likely pushing for representatives to introduce legislation at the federal level. Efforts to deter swatting are unlikely to impact the frequency of threats, as foreign actors very likely view legal attempts to contain swatting as a challenge. They will very likely shift campaigns to include more diverse targets outside of politicians, almost certainly including law enforcement, hospitals, educational institutions, and other critical services in swatting campaigns.


As the Spring holidays progress, threat actors will very likely use the holidays as a means to target members of those faiths for swatting attacks. They will very likely increase calls against mosques and Muslim populations, likely attempting to make US Islamic populations feel threatened and isolated. These actors will very likely falsely blame other faiths for their attacks, likely increasing tensions and further divides between religious communities. Law enforcement will very likely increase patrols near at-risk places of worship, almost certainly to corroborate and take action against serious threats.


There is a roughly even chance that potential active shooters will employ swatting methods to soften targets before attacks. Threat actors will likely investigate potential targets and determine which areas would have the most impact, very likely phoning in threats to various locations to reduce a law enforcement response to the actual target. Without sufficient evidence to the contrary, law enforcement will very likely be unable to discern the credibility of the threat, likely causing confusion and misinformation spread between concerned residents seeking information.


Recommendations

The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) recommends election officials create an open dialogue with law enforcement, identifying best practices for prevention and response to swatting incidents. Election officials are recommended to report any suspicious or threatening activity, in-person or digital. Law enforcement should consider a holistic approach to protecting individuals from swatting incidents. CTG recommends election officials provide law enforcement with any personal information pertinent to ensuring safety. Training officials on how to respond to swatting incidents and what information is critical to provide the police is recommended.


CTG recommends law enforcement identify places of worship most at risk for swatting threats. They should increase patrols and communication with these locations and ensure all potential threats are answered immediately. Law enforcement should also provide additional resources, such as ways to identify swatting and active shooter response training. CTG recommends law enforcement create awareness around the threats and assure communities hesitant to report activities that they will be taken seriously. CTG recommends strict security and privacy settings on personal devices, enabling two-factor authentication, and downloading caller verification apps to prevent unauthorized cloning. The use of complex passphrases and frequent changes are recommended. Tech companies should work with law enforcement agencies and lawmakers to identify ongoing gaps in detecting false calls. CTG recommends tech companies and law enforcement agencies collaborate frequently and keep in contact over changing threats.


CTG works to detect, deter, and defeat terrorism and will continue to monitor swatting actions. CTG’s Worldwide Analysis of Threats, Crimes, and Hazards (W.A.T.C.H) Officers will monitor activity concerning swatting events. NORTHCOM and CTSC teams will analyze ongoing and potential threats as the 2024 US presidential election continues. Teams will remain on high alert and provide the most up-to-date information in reports published on our Counter Threat Center website.

 

[1] Police, generated by a third partydatabase

[2] Georgia bill would impose harsher penalties on more ‘swatting’ calls, AP, March 2024, https://apnews.com/article/georgia-swatting-calls-penalties-bill-13f2b54b193a6391d252914fe8a1f1dc 

[3] Judges overseeing Trump cases in New York and DC are the latest targets as bogus ‘swatting’ calls surge, AP, January 2024,

[4]  Georgia bill would impose harsher penalties on more ‘swatting’ calls, AP, March 2024, https://apnews.com/article/georgia-swatting-calls-penalties-bill-13f2b54b193a6391d252914fe8a1f1dc 

[5] SB 421 Obstruction of Public Administration; offense of transmitting a false public alarm; enhance penalties, Georgia General Assembly, https://www.legis.ga.gov/legislation/66477 

[6] Georgia bill would impose harsher penalties on more ‘swatting’ calls, AP, March 2024, https://apnews.com/article/georgia-swatting-calls-penalties-bill-13f2b54b193a6391d252914fe8a1f1dc 

[7] US lawmakers targeted by swatting hoaxes in multiple states, BBC News, December 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-67837637 

[8] Teen Accused of Swatting Call at Florida Mosque Is Thought to Be Behind Many More, The New York Times, February 2024, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/01/us/alan-filion-swatting.html 

[9] Juvenile Arrested for Conducting Swatting Attacks Targeting Synagogues and Other Institutions, The Federal Bureau of Investigation, December 2023, https://www.fbi.gov/contact-us/field-offices/losangeles/news/juvenile-arrested-for-conducting-swatting-attacks-targeting-synagogues-and-other-institutions 

[10] Don’t Make the Call The New Phenomenon of ‘Swatting’, The Federal Bureau of Investigation, February 2008, https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/stories/2008/february/swatting020408 

[11] The FBI has formed a national database to track and prevent 'swatting', NBC News, June 2023, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/fbi-formed-national-database-track-prevent-swatting-rcna91722 

[12] US lawmakers targeted by swatting hoaxes in multiple states, BBC News, December 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-67837637 

[13] Secret Service, Justice Dept locate person of interest in swatting attacks on DHS Secretary Mayorkas and other officials, CBS News, March 2024,

[14] Growing list of public and private people are being targeted by swatting attempts, NPR, February 2024,

[15] Bill cracking down on ‘swatting’ clears Georgia House by overwhelming majority, Macon Telegraph, March 2024, https://www.macon.com/news/politics-government/article286577140.html

[16] Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green targeted by failed Christmas swatting attempt, PBS, December 2023,

[17] Judges in NY, DC Trump Cases Are Latest Targets in 'Swatting' Surge, Voice of America, January 2024, https://www.voanews.com/a/judges-in-ny-dc-trump-cases-are-latest-targets-in-swatting-surge/7437998.html 

[18] Judges overseeing Trump cases in New York and DC are latest targets as bogus ‘swatting’ calls surge, AP, January 2024, https://apnews.com/article/swatting-calls-marjorie-taylor-greene-rick-scott-d568818925c99c8cf17467f737b99e

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