Law enforcement agencies across the country have found few answers when it comes to dealing with the dangerous and sometimes deadly practice of “swatting,” when a fake emergency call is used to draw a large police response to an unsuspecting person’s address. The Seattle Police Department is ready to try a new tactic.
After being approached by at least one prominent player in Seattle’s streaming gaming community, SPD announced a campaign Monday to make people aware of steps they can take online to try to protect themselves against 911 calls made for malicious purposes.
The deadly consequences of swatting became a national story earlier this year when a man was killed by police in Wichita, Kan., after a dispute online between men playing the videogame “Call of Duty: WWII” triggered a fake emergency call. Three men are facing federal charges in that crime.
Communications department personnel are leading the effort for SPD, mainly due to their experience with digital media and streaming. A new public service announcement, below, details the initiative, using police body cam footage from a real swatting call in Seattle in August.
Citizens who are concerned that they could become the victim of this type of crime are encouraged to create a simple, confidential profile online that 911 call centers in King County will have access to thanks to an ongoing contract with Rave Mobile Safety, makers of a platform that gives call takers access to enhanced information about individual phone numbers and addresses.
“It’s not perfect, but it does give people a level of comfort knowing they’ve made contact with their local police department,” said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, SPD’s public affairs director. “The problem of swatting is something that exists from a 911 perspective, a criminal investigations perspective and a patrol operations perspective.”
And Whitcomb said swatting affects more people than just the video game community. Anyone with an elevated profile online could be a victim he said, including online broadcasters of any stripe; video game developers; members of the tech industry; and others.
Everyone else on the periphery can be impacted by the waste of resources and the dangerous potential when those heavily armed resources are deployed.
“It could be as little as ‘I had to wait longer for a 911 response because 10 officers were on a swatting call,'” Whitcomb said. “It could be as much as, ‘I was the neighbor of a person who was being swatted and I was terrified and literally hiding my children under their beds or in the basement because a bunch of police with rifles were on my street.’ There is residual damage that happens when people commit this crime.”
Software as a service — and a defense
King County pays $360,000 a year to outfit several of the 911 call centers in the region with access to software created by Massachusetts-based Rave Mobile Safety, specifically the company’s Rave 911 Suite, which includes data and communications tools to help 911 call takers assist first responders dealing with emergencies.
Whitcomb and his team have been working closely with Rave to come up with a simple tweak that could give call centers and police an extra level of information that could help defuse the danger level in a swatting response.
Because burner phones or non-initialized phones are often used to make the fake call far from an address where the response is requested, SPD and Rave needed a solution that didn’t rely on a phone number, the way services such as Smart 911 do. They turned to a workaround within Rave Facility, which the company created about four years ago as a way for corporate campuses, schools and other institutions to securely share more information online about their facilities in the event of a 911 emergency.
SPD is encouraging anyone who wants to create a profile to do so through Rave Facility, entering their home or apartment address into an area which is normally reserved for a commercial property. A text box can be used to enter simple instructions, such as “swatting concern.” In the event of a 911 call — a hostage situation, or active shooter for instance — this information can be retrieved by call takers. (It’s free to sign up and instructions for how to do so can be found at the bottom of this story.)
“This is the first time we’ve had a customer engage us about leveraging the 911 [suite] specifically to address issues around swatting,” said Noah Reiter, Rave’s vice president of customer success. The company has been around since 2004.
“Rave, as a company, is incredibly involved in the public safety industry and trade associations and provides a lot of thought leadership around the incorporation of novel technology into emergency response — it’s obviously our area of expertise,” Reiter added.
He called SPD’s idea a “workaround” and said it wasn’t even in the back of developer’s minds when Rave Facility was created. But the cloud-based SaaS is constantly improving.
“We develop enhancements based on these types of innovative ideas just like the one Seattle PD and Sean presented to us. That’s how we grow as a company,” Reiter said. “We do have such a close connection with our public safety partners — they’re really more than customers — who have unique challenges that in many cases they come to us to try to help solve.”
‘It’s easy to feel helpless’
In the Aug. 24 body cam video footage shared by SPD, above, several officers with high-powered weapons are seen going through the hallways of an apartment building. They eventually engage with a woman and tell her that they received a call saying five people were being held hostage at her address.
“Holy s*it,” the woman said to police.
No arrests have been made in what SPD called an active and ongoing investigation.
Anyone can be a victim of the crime, and high-profile cases like the shooting death in Kansas have brought the issue to the forefront. David Hogg, one of the well-known and vocal survivors of the mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school, was swatted in June. Celebrities such as Justin Bieber, Tom Cruise, Miley Cyrus and more show up on this list of famous people who have been targeted.
The Seattle Online Broadcasters Association represents members of Seattle’s online broadcasting community — Twitch streamers, YouTube content creators, Mixer streamers, etc. JJ Feore, director of partner relations for SOBA, called swatting a growing safety concern for all members of the online broadcasting and video game communities.
“Just within the last week, we had two members of our community doxxed and receive death threats,” Feore said. “It isn’t so much the frequency with which these incidents occur — they are rare — but their consequences are potentially deadly. For certain individuals who are the target of harassment like this, it’s easy to feel helpless.”
Online broadcasting and e-sports are only getting bigger, with more and more players gaining a higher profile. As the industries grow, the form of entertainment is turning ordinary people into mini-celebrities who become likely targets for harassment.
Feore is hopeful that the effort to engage people and use Rave Facility could reduce the risk for everyone involved, even though he knows it won’t put an end to swatting.
“Policing is so often a reactionary effort, so it’s fantastic to see SPD recognizing the need and getting out ahead of this issue,” Feore said. “Just knowing that this is an issue that police are aware of and take seriously is incredibly reassuring. I plan to encourage every SOBA broadcaster in the Seattle municipal area to sign up for this.”
“This is not a silver bullet,” Whitcomb said. “It’s a tool people can take advantage of.”
And while Whitcomb and his public affairs team had to end the use of Twitch and video game streaming as a means of community outreach in 2017, following backlash over one in-game discussion, the department’s new leader encourages this latest initiative.
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said that a culture of “continuous improvement and innovation” has been one of her priorities, and the anti-swatting protocol is a reflection of that.
“We heard the concerns of our community members, and made small adjustments to our business practices,” Best said. “The goal is to empower affected community members with a confidential way to share specific swatting concerns with our 911 center. Seattle police officers deserve to have the best information available as they respond to sensitive calls for service.”
If you’re concerned about being the target of swatting, Seattle police have shared the following steps for how to create a Rave Facility profile:
- Step 1. Go to the site.
- Step 2. Click the Register Now button. There is no cost and your information is confidential.
- Step 3. You will be on a “Register Your Corporation” page. Simply enter the name of your household and all required fields.
- Step 4. Ignore the “Rave Panic Button Activation Code” field.
- Step 6. Click submit.
- Step 7. This brings you to the “Campuses” page. Ensure your home or apartment information is accurate. In the “Location Type” field, use the drop down to select “Other” and then type in “private residence” in the text box.
- Step 8. In the “Other Access Info” text box, type in SWATTING CONCERNS.
- Step 9. Click on the Save button.
- Step 10. Log out.
The Seattle Police 911 Center will review and approve Rave Facility applications. No further action is necessary.