It begins with a phone call to a police force that could be thousands of miles away, claiming wild threats of violence and mayhem or desperate pleas for help—and then, the sound of a doorbell or a hard knock at the door.
Under the watchful eye of a webcam, victims can be seen lifting a headphone from one ear and momentarily pausing to listen. Some stand up from their computer screens to go investigate, while others go right back to gaming. Whatever the case, the outcome is always the same: well-armed police officers storm in and shout orders to get-the-fuck-on-the-floor.
The phenomenon, known as "swatting," is not new. But some, hiding behind a shroud of internet anonymity, have taken the practice to new extremes. Such is the case of a 17-year-old teen with a knack for hacking and a penchant for terrorizing fellow gamers—mostly young women—whose fate will be decided in a courtroom in the Vancouver, British Columbia suburb of Port Coquitlam later this month.
In May, he plead guilty to 23 charges of extortion, public mischief and criminal harassment related to several swatting incidents in Canada and the US—out of 40 total charges—but as a young offender he cannot be named.
The 17-year-old called in hostage situations, murders, bomb threats, and threatened to kill police
His guilty plea made international headlines, in part due to his association with a hacking group called Lizard Squad, known for its attacks on the Playstation Network and Xbox Live online gaming services, amongst other video gaming sites. In one eight-hour video, which has since been taken offline, Ars Technica reported that the teen identified himself as a member of the group, and has used the handles "obnoxious" and "internetjesusob" online (Lizard Squad denies the teen was a core member).
But, as local media has reported, the young hacker's victims were not only the large networks and institutions that Lizard Squad targeted, but unsuspecting fans of the popular video game League of Legends, as well as other gamers who had the misfortune of crossing his path online.
Florida's Polk County Sheriff's Office first identified the teen after he placed several threatening calls to locations in the area in late 2014, including threats to shoot and blow up a high school where one of his targets attended. According to a report in The Province, "when [targets] would not acknowledge friend and follow requests or send him things that he wanted, such as photos, he would harass them and their families."
There was a woman in Arizona, swatted repeatedly and terrorized to the point of dropping out of university for a semester, and the Minnesota parents whose credit was in shambles after the teen swatted their child and posted the parents' personal information online. In other instances, the teen would call in hostage situations, murders, bomb threats, and threatened to kill police, The Province reported, and would then hack and harass targets and their families for months with "phone calls, texts and by spamming social media accounts."
In the case of the Arizona woman, the teen even "cancelled utilities, phone and Internet accounts, called her parents in the middle of the night and released their financial information online."
At the time of his arrest in BC on December 5, 2014, the sheriff's office described the teen as "an experienced computer programmer known to Canadian law enforcement authorities ... on probation for similar crimes in Canada." He previously pleaded guilty to two counts of criminal harassment that occurred in late 2013 and early 2014, also involving "young women he met online."
When reached via phone, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police declined to comment.
"We don't speak about it a whole lot for the same reasons we don't talk about suicides and bomb threats," Sgt. Rob Vermeulen told Motherboard. "It gives them the thing that they're seeking, which is attention."
Across the border, the state of New Jersey is no stranger to such incidents. Capt. Stephen Jones with the New Jersey State Police told Motherboard in a phone interview that his force has assisted on several swatting cases across multiple jurisdictions.
"We have a hi-tech crimes unit and they're in sometimes a better position to help assist some the agencies who are not as well staffed in the technical areas," he said. "There are patterns to the way that some of these crimes are committed and there are some commonalities to help recognize them. So, training dispatchers is already taking place and will be a part of the ongoing response."
Jones acknowledged that his state has seen several incidents that have garnered headlines lately, but cautions that "in the bigger scope of things, this is everyone's problem across the country."
"If you've got a location where a false alarm is called in, and then there's a real emergency requiring that tactical group to perform a rescue across town, and they're tied up with that call, potentially we could see someone's life lost because those resources are being used elsewhere for a false call," Jones said.
The BC teen's sentencing hearing resumes June 29 in Port Coquitlam Provincial Court.