Author Patrick Tomlinson and his wife, business owner Niki Robinson, have been «beaten up» in their Milwaukee home more than 40 times, often resulting in police holding guns to their heads. Their tormentors have also made bogus bomb threats to places using their names in three states. However, law enforcement has been unable to stop the calls.
The couple’s terror comes as such incidents appear to be on the rise across the US, at least on college campuses. In less than a week in April, universities like Clemson, Florida, Boston, Harvard, Cornell, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Oklahoma, as well as Middlebury College, were targeted by flyswatters.
To combat the growing problem, the FBI has begun taking formal steps to get a complete picture of the problem on a national level.
Chief Scott Schubert of the bureau’s Criminal Justice Information Services headquarters in Clarksburg, West Virginia, told NBC News that the agency formed a national online database in May to facilitate the sharing of information among hundreds of from police departments and law enforcement agencies across the country regarding swatting incidents. .
Schubert said this effort will provide the office with «a common operational picture of what is happening across the country.» He added: «We are taking all steps to monitor this national issue and help where we can.»
What is crush?
Security expert Lauren R. Shapiro, who is an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said: “Swatting involves people making fraudulent 911 calls and reporting serious-level criminal threats or violent situations such as bomb threats. , hostages, murders, etc. tricking the police into searching the home or business of someone who is not actually committing a crime.”
Hitting can have deadly consequences. In 2021, Mark Herring died of a heart attack during a police response to his Tennessee home caused by a fraudulent report of a shooting.
And in 2017, a Wichita police officer, unaware that a caller had falsely reported a homicide and hostage situation at Andrew Finch’s home, killed 28-year-old Finch.
Those deaths are incredibly rare, Shapiro noted, thanks to highly trained SWAT teams responding to hoax calls.
No central agency has tracked swatting incidents or suspects in the US, so no official statistics are available. By 2019, there were an estimated 1,000 swatting incidents nationwide each year, according to an Anti-Defamation League report, and each incident is estimated to cost affected communities at least $10,000, even before spending on follow-up work such as investigations. , repairs and real estate advice.
Swatting is increasingly enabled by technology that can be used to mask a caller’s real voice, phone number or IP address (also called «spoofing») or to make your false report sound louder. credible.
Schubert told NBC News that the FBI’s new centralized database should help the agency «get a common picture of what’s happening in our nation so we can learn from that.»
the tomlinson terror
Tomlinson’s troubles began after he posted an offhand comment on Twitter in 2018 saying that he personally had never found comedian Norm Macdonald very funny. As the daily beast reported, the tweet caught the attention of online trolls who soon began harassing, harassing, impersonating, and defaming Tomlinson and his wife, using a website of their own along with social media accounts on Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube to target the couple and invite others. to stack.
Their stalkers mostly converge on a website that is cloned elsewhere so that participants can quickly migrate if their forum is banned by a service provider.
Since The Daily Beast’s report, bullying has intensified both online and offline.
The couple was recently beaten at their home Tuesday, bringing the total beating incidents to 43. Tomlinson’s parents, who are elderly, were also beaten at their home about 2 hours outside Milwaukee this year. .
“It has taken away our sanctuary,” Tomlinson said of the constant harassment, adding: “We don’t feel safe in our own home. We don’t know when they’re going to open the door.»
Tomlinson described one incident: “I go downstairs and find there are half a dozen cops with guns, shotguns, AR-15s, all on fire and flashlights pointed at my head. They take me out of the house and then, on my own front porch, they immediately handcuff me.»
In addition to abusing emergency services, the impersonators also fraudulently called the couple’s natural gas supplier, We Energies, to have their heat shut off during cold Wisconsin nights on two occasions, most recently in March, according to records shared by the family.
«We woke up with our breath visible inside. Temperatures were in the 50s at our house,» Tomlinson said, endangering the couple and their pets (two cats and a bearded dragon lizard).
False threats using the couples’ names have also hit a favorite local Irish pub twice this year, prompting police to bring bomb-sniffing dogs to the bar during a Marquette game on one occasion.
The flyswatters also called with a fake bomb threat to American Family Field, the ballpark where the Milwaukee Brewers play, on a night Tomlinson had publicly announced they would attend. And on December 10, 2022, fake bomb threats mentioning Tomlinson prompted the evacuation of thousands of fans from a Patti Labelle concert at the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee.
The couple say they have spent tens of thousands of dollars in the past five years in an attempt to protect themselves. Among other items, they said they purchased high-end home security systems, self-defense weapons, and more.
Tomlinson and Robinson filed a lawsuit against the owners of an online forum that their stalkers have used to attack them. But the court never heard their case because they didn’t have the names of the website owners to sue. They sent a subpoena for those names to a web service provider, Cloudflare, but it was quashed. They were forced to drop the lawsuit and now say they owe more than $50,000 in legal fees to the same people who attacked them, enough to possibly bankrupt them, the couple said.
Why are there no arrests?
While the first recorded case of swatting occurred in 2002, to this day, there is no specific law criminalizing swatting in the US, says John Jay’s Shapiro.
“Without a statute in place, there are no designated resources or training to investigate crushing incidents,” he said. «And 911 dispatchers don’t have the resources and training they need to differentiate between real emergencies and false reports.»
Legally, the false information and deception statute, also known as section 1038, is most often used to prosecute swatting. Sometimes other statutes may apply: one related to interstate threats involving explosives and another related to interstate communications, which deals with extortion or threats to injure or kidnap someone.
“Too often, perpetrators get a slap on the wrist compared to the consequences suffered by their victims,” Shapiro said.
As far as law enforcement is concerned, the couple and their situation are now familiar to the Milwaukee Police Department. During the most recent crushing incident, the police went to their home and simply left a business card, but didn’t wake the couple up, let alone point guns at their faces like in the past.
Robinson is something of an advocate of training police to deal with beatings as a result of her experience.
She said she had to explain to the police what it means to smash as they pointed guns at her doorstep. “There is no excuse for any police department, any police officer not to know what swatting is, and every department in this country should have policies, procedures and training on it. It has been around for over a decade. People have died because of it. It’s crazy.»
The Milwaukee Police Department said in a statement: «MPD has a duty to respond to calls for service to ensure that no one is in danger and that necessary precautions are taken during these incidents.»
At the federal level, Tomlinson filed a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center in November 2020. He never saw a response to that, so in early May 2022 he went in person to the FBI Milwaukee branch to file a complaint. new.
An FBI special agent was assigned to evaluate his case. He says the agency already had a file on Tomlinson because of a fake bomb threat that the flyswatters had called to a hotel outside Detroit in April 2022, a few weeks before a presentation he was scheduled to give. The presentation, part of PenguiCon, was titled, «Elon Musk is full of S—.»
Since then, «there has been almost zero communication from the FBI,» Tomlinson said.
An agent has requested more evidence from his family via email on rare occasions. But the agency has not brought him or his wife in for an interview, and it has not arrested the people the couple identified as participating in their harassing and slapping.
The FBI’s Schubert could not comment on his specific case, but recommended, in general, «if you receive a crush threat or information that a person plans to participate in a crush event, contact your local police immediately.»