The holidays have ushered in a rash of swatting incidents targeting politicians across the country, with phony calls for help leading heavily armed law enforcement personnel to show up at the homes of unsuspecting members of Congress and other elected officials.
The most high-profile episode came on Christmas Day, when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) announced on X, formerly Twitter, “I was just swatted. This is like the 8th time. On Christmas with my family here.”
Other similar episodes have followed this week in locations as varied as Cayuga County, N.Y., DeKalb County, Ga., Lincoln, Neb., and Licking County, Ohio.
On Thursday, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) posted on social media that his home in Naples, Fla., had been swatted by “cowards” while he was at dinner with his wife. “These criminals wasted the time & resources of our law enforcement in a sick attempt to terrorize my family,” Scott wrote.
Most recent incidents have targeted Republicans, but Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, a Democrat, was among those who had law enforcement investigate a matter near her home after a report of a shooting that police determined was a hoax.
These episodes are the latest in a dangerous trend of people trying to send law enforcement personnel to homes, businesses or schools by falsely claiming a violent crime is underway or just took place.
Lauren R. Shapiro, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said lawmakers may be targeted over specific legislation, or because of their more broadly held beliefs and positions.
When “someone disagrees with a person’s beliefs/statements/etc., the person may lash out by launching a harassment campaign, stalking, swatting, etc., to try to intimidate the target into silence,” Shapiro said in an email.
Another expert said high-profile episodes targeting lawmakers could spur copycats.
“People learn of those threats, and it spreads,” said Gregory H. Winger, an assistant professor focusing on cybersecurity at the University of Cincinnati’s School of International and Public Affairs.
In Greene’s case, a man in New York called a Georgia suicide hotline and falsely claimed that he had shot his girlfriend at Greene’s address.
On Thursday, Greene said on social media that the homes where her two daughters live were also swatted. “Whoever is doing this, you are going to get caught and it won’t be funny to you anymore,” she wrote.
Following the episode on Christmas Day, several other lawmakers in Georgia and around the country were similarly targeted.
About an hour after Greene’s social media post, former Nebraska state senator Adam Morfeld wrote on X, “Merry Christmas to all, except for the jerk who called 911 pretending to be me claiming I was going to kill myself.”
Rep. Brandon Williams (R-N.Y.) also announced that day on social media that “our home was swatted this afternoon.”
The day after Christmas, “numerous” sheriff’s deputies responded to the home of Ohio state Rep. Kevin D. Miller (R) “on a false report of a shooting,” he wrote on X. The event “put several lives at risk and was a huge waste of resources.”
Several state senators in Georgia — as well as the state’s lieutenant governor — have also been targeted this week, prompting calls for state legislation to strengthen laws against swatting. Among those targeted was state Sen. Clint Dixon (R). He was watching football with his wife on Christmas night at his Buford home when police arrived in response to a caller who said he had killed his wife and was holding someone else hostage, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
When a member of Congress is targeted by a swatting call, the U.S. Capitol Police seeks to “work closely with our local and federal law enforcement partners,” the agency said in a statement. “To protect ongoing investigations and to minimize the risk of copy-cats, we cannot provide more details at this time.”
Swatting has been employed as an intimidation tactic for more than 15 years. In early 2008, the FBI’s website warned of the “new phenomenon of ‘Swatting,’ ” calling it a “much more serious twist” on the old crime of hacking into phone companies to make long-distance calls. Since then, the problem has grown in frequency and severity.
In 2017, police in Wichita fatally shot a 28-year-old man who opened the front door of the home they had been summoned to by a phony call about a hostage situation.
In 2020, a 60-year-old man in Tennessee died of a heart attack after armed police surrounded his home while responding to a false report that someone had been shot at that address.
In April, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on the FBI to investigate dozens of swatting episodes aimed at schools.
In October, The Washington Post reported that over the past year, more than 500 schools in the United States had been subjected to a coordinated swatting effort, based on a review of media reports and dozens of public records requests.
One widely cited figure comes from Kevin Kolbye, a former FBI swatting expert, who told the Economist that he estimated the number of swatting episodes went from about 400 in 2011 to more than 1,000 in 2019.
In the past two decades, there have probably been 20,000 swatting episodes, according Shapiro, the professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of the book “Cyberpredators and Their Prey.” It “has been a problem for a while.”
The problem has grown as law enforcement personnel have been responding to an increasing number of mass shootings and domestic threats, according to Winger, who said swatters found a way to “weaponize police responses.”
The increased public safety challenges posed by active shooters and other assailants, plus fake calls for emergency responses, “are two sides of the same coin,” Winger said. “How do you know whether that is a real situation or somebody being swatted, because the phone call you get is often quite similar.”
Shapiro said legislation to combat swatting and train personnel how to monitor and identify it has been hindered in Congress for years.
One reason for the delay is that lawmakers who support such legislation can become victims of it, Shapiro said.
Frances Vinall and Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.