Ross D. Franklin / AP Photo

Federal bill would target dangerous prank of swatting

Hoax involves reporting a threat so that a SWAT team is sent to an unsuspecting person’s house

A new kind of prank called swatting — in which hoax calls result in a SWAT team raid on an unwitting victim — came under the spotlight Friday when members of Congress announced a proposal to combat it.

SWAT team raids resulting from hoax calls are occurring more than 400 times a year around the country, said U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., at a press conference Friday in Pennsylvania.

The Interstate Swatting Hoax Act of 2015, a bill introduced in November by Meehan and Democratic Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, would make swatting a federal crime and hold perpetrators responsible for any deaths or serious injuries that result from raids and for any associated costs.  

"The essence of it [the bill] is that when there is a false report that is intentionally designed to bring a SWAT response the person can now be federally prosecuted for doing that,” Meehan said.

A relatively unknown phenomenon just a few years ago, swatting has become an increasingly popular prank.

Randi Lee Harper, the founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, wrote in April about her experience getting swatted. She opened her door at 10:20 p.m. to find six officers from the Oakland Police standing outside.

She told Al Jazeera that she believes she was targeted by people who object to her work against online abuse.

“A lot of people want to do things that they feel will take me down a peg or two,” she said. “In their minds, they thought it would just be funny. They think it’s funny to get people potentially killed.”

When SWAT teams approach houses, they are heavily armed, often with guns drawn. In May a toddler in Georgia was put into a coma after a stun grenade from a SWAT team landed in his crib. The raid was not an instance of swatting but highlighted the dangers of such a raid.

As a vocal opponent of online harassment, and having seen other people swatted, Harper filed a report with local police in anticipation of her own swatting.

“My experience was pretty tame,” she said. “They were armed, but their guns were put away. They said the only reason that they didn’t have their guns out was because … I filed a report saying that I was going to be swatted.”

In 2013, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill to crack down on swatting. The New Jersey State Assembly passed its own bill in June to increase the penalties for people who call in such hoaxes.

In Harper’s case, no one was arrested, although several people came forward online to take responsibility.

She thinks a national law to address swatting is a good first step, but she has reservations. “I would be concerned about anything that is going to get passed without extra money being given to police stations for training to learn how to deal with this.”

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