Feb 1, 2024 - News

"Swatting" incidents stoke fear in the DMV

A photograph of the Capitol building from a building nearby

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

A rise in swatting incidents against high-profile people in and out of Washington is leading Congress to take action, offering new guidance to members' families and offices on how to address them.

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."

What's happening: The swatting calls have recently targeted households all over the DMV, including downtown and suburban counties. There was even one at the White House last month.

  • D.C. firefighters ordered five engines, two trucks, and medics to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Jan. 15 after an emergency call about a fake fire, the Washington Post reported.

What they're saying: In a rare letter addressed to congressional spouses, a copy of which was obtained by Axios, House Sergeant at Arms William McFarland said his office "will be planning a virtual conference to discuss swatting with congressional staff."

  • McFarland also noted he would "personally be on hand" at upcoming party retreats to discuss security matters with spouses.

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.

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.

  • MPD declined to share any data around local swatting calls, telling Axios the agency has only recently begun tracking them.
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