Toronto woman who was 'swatted' profiled in the New York Times
Canadian authorities criticized in feature-length investigation into hoax
One morning last winter, police officers decked out in riot gear, guns drawn, showed up at a house in Toronto. The family living there had no idea they were coming, and had done nothing to provoke that kind of visit.
Nothing, that is, except that their daughter was one of many people in Canada and the U.S. who'd fallen victim to an online abuser who engaged in a practice known as "swatting."
That's when someone tricks police into sending heavily-armed officers to a person's home.
The background to that incident — and what came next — is detailed in a piece headlined The Serial Swatter, in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine.
U.S. journalist Jason Fagone said he wrote the piece because he found the story "astounding."
When he first heard of swatting, he thought of it as a mostly harmless hoax. But he said what's really happening is that the perpetrator is trying to do everything possible to summon the largest possible police response and create maximum confusion.
He saw an online article about the trial of the teenager swatting dozens of people across North America over a two-year period. The teen pleaded guilty in the spring to 23 charges related to hoaxes that resulted in police SWAT teams responding to fake emergency calls. The charges included extortion, harassment and public mischief.
The incidents were aimed at two dozen mostly female fans of the game League of Legends.
The case stuck with Fagone, but he never found any really deep reporting about it.
"First really important thing to understand is it's much more than a prank. There's incredible risk to everyone involved," said Fagone of swatting.
"If [police] have bad information, there's a real risk of a tragic misunderstanding. Eventually somebody is going to die in one of these."
Police response 'disturbing'
"One of the really disturbing things was that law enforcement didn't see it as a serious problem for a long time. Over and over, the women ... would say that police would talk to them but wouldn't understand, sometimes would suggest maybe they were doing something to bring it on," Fagone said.
"This guy really devoted himself to destroying people's lives, and there was nothing police were doing to stop it."
A crack in the case came when the female victims banded together and shared information. They attempted to find a sympathetic detective, and gave him all the evidence they could.
Of all police the group of victims spoke to, a detective in Georgia was the only one who really seemed to understand what was going on, and wanted to do something about it, Fagone said. That detective eventually got the FBI to persuade Canadian police to the arrest the teenager, who can't be named under Canada's Youth Criminal Justice Act offenders. Fagone said it was a case police didn't want to take on.
"Absolutely any cop can do a swatting investigation. This guy barely had any technical know-how but was able to follow the trail," he said. "To this day, I don't know why Canadian police treated this perp so leniently, in the investigation and then in the trial. Canadian police knew about him all along, and did nothing until the last minute."
When contacted by CBC News, Toronto Police declined to comment on the issue.
Undeterred from gaming
Besides his critique of the Canadian authorities, Fagone focused the story on a woman from Toronto.
Many of the victims, including the one Fagone profiled, broadcast themselves playing video games on a site called Twitch. There is a substantial audience for streaming gameplay on the site, and sometimes users can make money doing it.
The swatter was extorting the women on Twitch. He was hacking the female Twitch users at first, using DDOS attacks, calling their ISPs as an imposter to get their personal info. Then he moved to swatting.
According to Fagone's article, the second time the female victim was swatted, she said one officer told her to "just pick up a book."
"The sad thing about this guy and his attacks — and how police responded — is that she and others were really good at using Twitch, imagining and hoping to have a life in games, and this guy succeeded in destroying that," said Fagone.
The subject of the piece, though, is back playing games, and back on Twitch. Other women who were targeted are also active on the site again. Fagone called that encouraging.
"They went back on Twitch, they didn't want this guy to win," he said.