A joke gone bad ended in tragedy last week, and it brings into the spotlight one of the worst aspects of gaming culture.
Last week, someone made a fake emergency call (known as swatting) to police in Wichita, Kansas, and the police shot an innocent man. On Friday, police in Los Angeles arrested 25-year-old Tyler Raj Barriss, who reportedly goes by the name SWAuTistic, for allegedly calling in the false report. Social media posts on the incident have continued this week. Let’s hope that this leads to increased awareness of these prank calls among law enforcement and realization that toxic behavior like swatting can have deadly consequences.
Security journalist Brian Krebs of KrebsonSecurity summarized the events. SWAuTistic had a history as a serial swatter, and he was convicted in 2016 for calling in a bomb threat to a TV station. The Associated Press reported that Barriss was sentenced to two years in prison for that stunt, but was released in January 2017. SWAuTistic claimed in public tweets that he was responsible for specific swat incidents, and reportedly took credit for fake emergency calls at 100 schools and 10 homes.
Krebs noted that one hacker offered a reward of $7,777 in Bitcoin for the real-life identity of SWAuTistic. Barriss’ name surfaced in the resulting social activity.
SWAuTistic reportedly sought an interview with KrebsOnSecurity on the afternoon of December 29, in which he said he routinely faked hostage and bomb threat situations to emergency centers across the country in exchange for money.
In the Wichita incident, a caller claimed that he had just shot his father and was holding the rest of his family hostage. It reportedly happened after a couple of players had an argument during an online match of Call of Duty. Then one of them dared SWAuTistic to swat him, but gave someone else’s address. Police went to that address, surrounded the home, and inadvertently shot Andrew Finch, the 28-year-old man who came out of the house. The unarmed Finch allegedly reached for his waist and prompted one of the officers to fire.
The FBI estimates that some 400 swatting incidents occur each year across the country, according to Krebs. Clearly, not all of those involve gaming. But in the age of the Internet, swatting has become increasingly common. The Oxford Dictionaries Online gave the word “swatting” a definition in 2015, and I wrote about one case as far back as 2013 involving a game streamer. Swatting is so dangerous that it’s surprising there aren’t more accidental deaths related to it.