Updated Jan 31, 2024 - Politics & Policy

New peril of political life: "Swatting"

Illustration of a rotary phone with a knot in the wire.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Several U.S. politicians and officials, and even the White House itself, have been targeted by a flurry of "swatting" incidents in recent weeks.

Why it matters: The dangerous hoax calls — targeting judges, lawmakers and election officials — are among a rising tide of political threats in the U.S., where roughly a quarter of Americans say they are open to resorting to violence to "save our country."

  • The incidents prompted a rare letter this week from the House's top security official to lawmakers' families and offices, which offered guidance on how to prepare for swatting incidents, Axios' Andrew Solender reports.

How it works: Swatting involves faking an emergency to elicit the dispatch of armed police officers, or SWAT teams, to a particular address.

  • When a swatting call is placed, it indicates that the culprit has a victim's specific physical address, which can be perceived as a threat in itself.
  • The tactic evolved from certain gaming circles in the early 2000s but has since become a fairly common form of criminal harassment.
  • New techniques like AI-synthesized voices, caller ID spoofing and IP masking have made swatting calls more efficient and even more of a headache for law enforcement.

The big picture: Recent prominent swatting victims include several members of Congress from both parties.

Judges and prosecutors involved in legal cases against former President Trump have also been targeted.

  • New York Judge Arthur Engoron, who is presiding over Trump's civil fraud trial, received a swatting threat against his house in January, hours before closing arguments in the case were set to begin.
  • The home of U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the federal case against Trump over his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election, was swatted in early January, as well, the New York Times reports.
  • The incident involving Chutkan came just weeks after special counsel Jack Smith was also targeted using the tactic.

Politicians and election officials Trump has attacked during his 2024 campaign have been swatted, as well.

  • These included Republican presidential candidate and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Haley said her parent's home was the target of a hoax call on Sunday, the second such incident in recent weeks, ABC News reported.
  • Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows (D), who disqualified Trump from appearing on the Maine 2024 primary ballot, said on social media her family's home had been swatted at the end of December.

By the numbers: Since the FBI created a national tracking database last year, it has logged 550 reported swatting incidents, according to a figure shared with Axios on Wednesday.

  • However, those reports were only from law enforcement agencies that are participating in the reporting system, meaning the actual number of swatting incidents since its creation is likely higher.

Of note: Swatting incidents often don't just target one victim. They have also been used against schools, government buildings, businesses, hospitals and religious buildings.

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