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Berginski: Grand Forks Swatting Not Funny

By Staff | Jul 17, 2015

If I were to ask readers what “swatting” is, odds are some of you will probably say it’s something you do to flies and mosquitoes. While correct, it’s not the kind that makes the news.

The kind of swatting that makes the news is a prank that is in no way harmless. It’s costly, potentially dangerous and should absolutely be considered criminal.

On Sunday evening, Grand Forks police received a call that a man with a gun was taking hostages in the southside Wal-Mart – where a shooting in May saw two dead, including the shooter, and one injured. The man demanded $2,000 and he would kill hostages if he didn’t receive the money or if police entered the store.

Six detectives and 18 SWAT officers with the Grand Forks Police Department, Grand Forks County Sheriff’s deputies, University of North Dakota police officers, the N.D. Bureau of Criminal Investigation and nearby Minnesota police and sheriff’s offices responded to the threat by setting up a perimeter and helping to evacuate 100 employees and shoppers. At midnight police were able to access video surveillance and didn’t find a gunman.

The store re-opened at 5:30 a.m. Monday. Grand Forks Police are asking for any information that can be provided about the case.

Yes, no one was physically harmed, but just think what damage has been, or could be done. Police attention was focused on what turned out to be an illegitimate threat while serious, real crimes (like murders, thefts, etc.) could’ve been happening at the same time. There were 100 people put into a state of terror for no real reason. A business was also closed for more than eight hours (the money they’ll probably get back in some way, but that’s beside the point). People, bystanders and officers alike, could’ve been hurt or worse.

Swatting is a prank in which someone first gets another person’s contact information through either social engineering (read: manipulating someone) or public record, and then spoofs it to make a call to the local police department. The call that is made is about a crime serious enough to merit bringing in several officers at once, K-9 units, SWAT teams or any combination of the three.

But this prank isn’t funny for all involved. It’s not funny for law enforcement agencies, who take things like this seriously. In fact, an article on the FBI website said a police officer (where and when not specified) had been injured in a car accident on his way to what turned out to be a swatting incident.

It’s not funny for the victims – and whether or not they deserve it is another matter entirely. The same article mentioned that some victims have had heart attacks when SWAT comes crashing down their doors. If a victim grabs a weapon to protect him or herself from strangers in his or her home, he or she could’ve been injured or killed.

It’s not funny for the taxpayers, who end up paying for it in some way.

It’s also not funny for the state, local and national justice systems. In North Dakota, Sunday’s Wal-Mart swatting can be considered “terrorizing”, a class C felony – punishable by up to five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. But some jurisdictions treat it simply as false reporting, which is punishable by one to four years in jail. In the U.S. Code, swatting doesn’t fall under one category, but three separate ones: “retaliating against a witness, victim or informant” (Title 18, Chapter 73, subsection 1513); “fraud and related activity in connection with computers” (Title 18, Chapter 47, subsection 1030); “conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud the United States” (Title 18, Chapter 19, subsection 371).

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) put forth a bill that would make swatting punishable by up to eight years in prison and would force perpetrators to reimburse responding rescue and law enforcement agencies for expenses up to $10,000. But according to GovTrack – a website that tracks U.S. congress members and the legislation they sponsor and vote on – the bill has a one percent chance of passage. One percent. Which means one of two things, either members of Congress are behind the times and don’t see it as a serious matter or members have their partisan blinders on so tightly that they won’t vote for it because a Democrat wrote it.

Crying “Wolf” when there was no wolf was not accepted in an old children’s tale. Nor should it be accepted without a punishment that’s as serious as the act itself.

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