COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A prank between video gamers turned into a dangerous night for an unsuspecting family and a costly police response.
That’s why an Ohio lawmaker said “swatting” — the act of reporting a critical incident to law enforcement, like hostage or active shooter situations, at a home where nothing is happening — has become a growing problem that should be more harshly punished.
Swatting began several years ago at celebrities’ homes, and Sen. Andrew Brenner (R-Delaware County) said it’s become more common among everyday people.
After a typical Thursday of work and errands, neurosurgeon Alex Powers fell asleep watching basketball last month.
“If it gets past 10 o’clock, for me, I usually fall asleep on the couch,” Powers said.
By midnight, Powers was standing in his Winston Salem, North Carolina living room, handcuffed in front of his children.
“It was complete chaos. And they have — you know — they have assault rifles,” said Powers, recounting the disorienting experience of being woken up by a SWAT team breaking his door down. “I’m like, why are they — why are the guns on me? Like, what in the world is going on?”
While Powers slept, someone had called police to report an active shooter at Powers’ home.
Within minutes of arriving at the home, officers realized none of that was true.
“They’re like, ‘OK! No shooter here.’ And they just walk up and take the cuffs off, they just walk out,” Powers said.
According to Powers, the incident started with his teenage son playing Fortnite, a popular online video game in which players from all over the world can compete inside colorful virtual arenas.
“I knew he played Fortnite, but I didn’t even know he was on this app called Discord,” Powers said. “Discord is not a good space.”
Discord is an app that hosts private chats. While it’s popular among video gamers, it’s also reportedly been used by criminals, including the suspect in a deadly mass shooting targeting Black people last month at a Buffalo, New York grocery store.
“Discord takes the safety of all users incredibly seriously,” a spokesperson from Discord said in an email. “We have zero-tolerance for illegal activity on our service, including cases like this that involve swatting, and have invested in dedicated resources to combat these forms of abuse. We act immediately when we become aware of this kind of behavior, including by banning users, shutting down servers, and engaging with authorities, when appropriate.”
The night the SWAT team came, Powers said his son was chatting with someone claiming to be from Dublin, Ohio. Powers explained that the participants in the chat, including his son, were sharing photos of their computers.
“He took a picture of his and sent it to him. And in the corner on his desk was one of my magazines with our address on it,” Powers said.
“I know Discord is used a lot for computer gamers. That’s where a lot of this swatting started from to begin with,” said Brenner, who first became aware of swatting in the summer of 2021, when two incidents happened in Delaware County within a month.
No one was hurt in either incident, but someone could have been, he said.
“What somebody thinks is a harmless prank could end up causing somebody a heart attack or other things which have happened,” Brenner said.
Powers said he was grateful to have fallen asleep on the couch. Had he been asleep in his bedroom, Powers said he would have grabbed his pistol when police entered his home.
“Had I come downstairs with a pistol, they would have killed me,” he said.
The cost of the law enforcement response is also an issue, Brenner said.
“It’s their resources, their time and effort, where they could be utilized elsewhere,” Brenner said. “They’re distracted by these types of calls, and it takes away from other things.”
Brenner introduce a bill in the Ohio Senate in February that would make swatting a felony in Ohio, punishable with fines and prison time. A similar bill was also introduced in the House of Representatives in October of 2021. Both pieces of legislation remain pending in committees.
“This has other ramifications there besides just pulling the prank on the kids, and they should know not to do this,” Brenner said.
Powers said he is working with the FBI to track down the swatter and that Discord is cooperating with the agency.