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New bill would crack down on 'swatting' hoaxes

Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) has introduced a bill to criminalize "swatting," the practice of making fake emergency calls in order to call law enforcement down on innocent targets. According to Clark's office, the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act is meant to broadly criminalize the practice, expanding on rules that currently ban bomb threat hoaxes or similar acts. "Perpetrators of these hoaxes purposefully use our emergency responders to harm their victims," said Clark in a statement. "These false reports are dangerous and costly, and have resulted in serious injury to victims and law enforcement. It is time to update our laws to appropriately address this crime."

This isn't the first federal bill to address swatting, which began getting mainstream publicity in 2013. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) introduced the SWAT Act earlier this year, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) put forward a bill called the Anti-Swatting Act, which is also supported by Clark. According to her office, however, these are more specific solutions — the former would punish provoking a law enforcement response by making a knowingly false statement, and the latter adds harsher penalties for people who "spoof" caller ID information in order to anonymously make a fake call.

Other anti-swatting bills are currently waiting in the wings

Clark's bill, by contrast, appears meant to cover any attempt to provoke law enforcement. It affects anyone who knowingly uses "a telecommunications system, the mails, or any other facility of interstate or foreign commerce" to transmit false or misleading information "indicating that conduct has taken, is taking, or will take place that may reasonably be believed to constitute a violation of any State or Federal criminal law, or endanger public health or safety."

That could mean a false emergency services call, but it could also mean (as Clark's office confirmed) a post on an internet forum, provided it was intended to call law enforcement down on a target under false pretenses. If an emergency response results, the perpetrator could be fined or given up to five years in prison, with additional civil penalties possible. If someone is injured or killed — something that has happened during police raids — because of the response, the penalties rise to 20 years or life in prison. In "any other case," callers could get up to a year in prison.

Clark has previously been a proponent of increasing penalties against internet threats and harassment in general, and her office says that this bill is meant to close a "loophole" in current laws. "While federal law prohibits using the telecommunications system to falsely report a bomb threat hoax or a terrorist attack, falsely reporting other emergency situations is not currently prohibited," reads a statement.

Swatting calls have brought police forces down on people as varied as CNN host Wolf Blitzer, security researcher Brian Krebs, and a number of figures in and around the gaming community. Clark's office also points to a string of fake calls in her home state of Massachusetts earlier this year. The calls are often difficult to trace, although people have been arrested and successfully prosecuted both in the US and abroad.