What does the CEO of Instagram have in common with Tom Cruise and Justin Bieber? They are among the many executives and celebrities who’ve been placed in great danger by a swatting attack. But it’s not only household celebrities who are at risk.
In early 2020, a man we’ll call JW was at home with his family, like so many others during the onset of the pandemic. He was playing board games with his teenage daughter. During the game, JW’s daughter looked at her phone and suddenly ran outside.
After a few minutes, when she hadn’t returned, JW headed out to check on her and was shocked to find 40 police officers on his front lawn. Someone called 911 and told the operator (while pretending to be JW) that he had killed his wife and threatened to burn his house down with his children in it.
JW was the victim of swatting. Forty police officers were dispatched for a crime that, of course, never happened. It was a total hoax.
And if their neighbor hadn’t texted JW’s daughter to ask why the police were outside, this story could have had a tragic ending. In swatting incidents, it’s not uncommon for law enforcement to break down the front door, causing panic to the unaware people in the house. Sadly, many have died by heart attack or gunfire during these terrible pranks.
You can think of swatting as the (very dangerous) next-level in prank phone calls. Callers will impersonate their victims and maliciously report false stories, a potential suicide, or accuse their victims of committing severe and violent crimes. As a result, police, or more often a SWAT team, will be dispatched to the person’s home.
Swatting is a federal crime with severe penalties in the U.S. Still, caller ID spoofing and voice manipulation software make it challenging for police departments to identify callers or their locations.
Doxxing happens when a person, upset with a particular individual or organization, searches for personal private information that they can reveal publicly, online. Then, they will use that information themselves or encourage others to use it with malicious intent, to stalk or otherwise harass their victims.
When sending pizza to a person’s house or sending threatening texts isn’t enough to accomplish the criminal’s purpose, they might up-level their harassment tactics to swatting.
In JW’s case, the swatter desperately wanted JW and others to sell their coveted social media usernames. When the owners wouldn’t give them up, he hassled them and eventually escalated to more serious criminal activity.
Doxxing began in the online gaming world when disgruntled gamers or hackers would “drop dox” on each other, sharing their personal information. Since then, these activities have expanded to include celebrities, journalists, politicians, and other well-known individuals. And unfortunately, doxxing someone’s information can quickly escalate into potentially deadly swatting.
High-profile people and those with controversial opinions are particularly at risk. Even relatively innocuous celebrities like Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher, Tom Cruise, Selena Gomez, and Simon Cowel have all been swatting victims. In each case, someone called emergency services to falsely report crises like break-ins, hostage situations, armed robberies, and shootings, and police were dispatched to the victims’ homes.
Brian Krebs, a cybersecurity reporter, was almost a victim of swatting. His attacker planned to deliver narcotics to the journalist’s home and alert the police. Fortunately, Krebs learned about the plan and prevented the incident when he called the police himself.
Since 2020, Black Lives Matter activist Melina Abdulla has been swatted several times by a group of racially motivated teens. Those charged were also involved in other bomb threats and swatting cases.
The number of swatting incidents across the country has more than doubled in the last ten years. The activity has become increasingly more dangerous as racial and political tensions rise. Sadly, swatting incidents have proven fatal:
Company executives are also targets in swatting incidents. Several Facebook and Instagram executives, including CEO Adam Mosseri, were swatted after personal information was leaked on the web. Motives are diverse and can be challenging to nail down, but Mosseri’s case seemed to result from users whose accounts were banned from the Facebook and Instagram platforms.
These attacks could happen to any executives as disgruntled employees or frustrated customers seeking an outlet for their anger. Doxxing and swatting are more likely when attackers can easily find personally-identifying information (PII) on data brokers or people search sites.
According to the Ontic Center for Protective Intelligence, 69% of executives report increases in physical and online threats against themselves and their companies. Likewise, one in four companies reported threats or harm against employees working outside of the office. As remote and hybrid positions become more common, the onus will be on companies to increase their efforts to protect people off-site.
Executives can take steps to protect their personal information on the internet, such as limiting the PII they share on social media, ensuring security measures are enabled on computing devices, and enabling privacy settings on email accounts.
In addition, organizations can take action to protect their executives and employees. For example, a subscription-based service like PrivacyBrain can help you protect your employees from stalking, identity theft, and harassment stemming from exposed sensitive information. Our software will search for exposed PII, automatically remove it from dozens of sketchy websites, and provide ongoing monitoring to keep it from popping up again and again.
Are you ready to support your executives and employees, boost company morale, and improve the retention of your top talent? Contact our sales team for a demo today.