Kyle Giersdorf was surprised when armed police officers showed up at his door late Saturday night.
The 16-year-old professional gamer hadn’t committed a crime. Rather, he was working: live-streaming himself playing “Fortnite,” a popular online shooter game. He recently earned $3 million when he won the game’s world championship competition in New York.
As his fans looked on, Giersdorf ― who goes by “Bugha” online ― learned from his father that police were outside. He quickly realized that he’d become the victim of a dangerous crime that threatens gamers everywhere.
“I got swatted?” he was heard saying on the livestream.
Swatting is a form of online harassment in which someone reports a false emergency to authorities in order to send armed police to a someone’s house. Often, suspects target streamers, so they can watch live as officers bust down the victim’s door and detain them.
It’s a dangerous act with potentially fatal implications. In 2017, a man named Tyler Barriss falsely reported a shooting and kidnapping taking place in a home in Wichita, Kansas. Armed officers arrived and fatally shot Andrew Finch, who was not the intended swatting target and happened to answer the door. (The intended target no longer lived at the home.)
In Giersdorf’s case, one of the responding officers lived in the neighborhood and recognized the family, Giersdorf said when he returned to the livestream. But, as he noted, not everyone is so lucky.
“What if I just got popped?” he said.
Swatting has frequently been viewed as a prank that primarily targets internet celebrities. A quick search turns up dozens of headlines and stories that refer to swatting as a prank, and perpetrators may not grasp how seriously it can endanger someone’s life, according to Ralph Russo, a cybercrime expert who spent more than 20 years in the New York Police Department.
“Part of the problem here is the way we view it,” Russo told HuffPost. He said labeling swatting as a “cybercrime” or a “false report” can underplay its gravity.
“What you’re doing is you’re creating a context in which someone can get killed,” he said.
In 2016, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) introduced a bill that would designate swatting and other forms of online harassment as federal crimes, and would provide further resources to local and state law enforcement handling cases of cybercrime. But the bill was referred to a subcommittee, and in the three years since, has not made it to the floor.
“What happened to Kyle Giersdorf happens to many victims and families as we spend more of our time online,” she said in a statement to HuffPost. “The FBI estimates that approximately 400 swatting attacks occur every year and unfortunately, they have resulted in victims being shot, heart attacks, and injury to law enforcement officers.”
Though legislative change may help, Russo points out that many states already have laws under which perpetrators can be charged. In New York, for example, he says swatting could be classified as a reckless endangerment felony.
Even without a specific charge for swatting, Barriss ultimately pleaded guilty to 51 federal counts and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. But as Giersdorf’s experience highlights, Barriss’s case has not dissuaded others from swatting.
“There’s a role here for education and that’s not to treat it lightly,” Russo said. “If you do it, this is what’s going to happen. You could go to jail for the rest of your life.”