Episode Show Notes

							
			

[START OF RECORDING]

JACK: When I was a teenager, I was really into skateboarding. Often-time I’d go with my friends and roll around behind buildings or in drainage ditches or at abandoned stores. Pretty much wherever we’d go skate was a place where no one was around. But one day a kid a few years older than me showed up to where my friend and I were skating. He came up looking all tough and told us to give him our skateboards, not in a ‘hey, let me show you a trick’ kinda way, but more like ‘give it to me or else’ kinda way. [MUSIC] But then he got right up on top of me and shoved me off my board. He went to pick up my skateboard, but my friend pushed him from behind and he fell over. I grabbed my skateboard; my friend and I took off as fast as we could skate. The guy got up and started chasing us. We got to the street which was pretty busy, but we darted across traffic in a crazy, dangerous kinda way. The older kid was right behind us, running through traffic, too. I saw there was a bank across the street, so I told my friend head for that. We jumped off our boards, picked them up, and ran right to the door of the bank, opened it up, went inside, and sat down in the waiting area. The other kid came in, looked around; he saw us and walked over. He looked around real quick and then back at me. He looked me in the eyes and then punched me in the face, and then ran out of there. It’s moments like these that define us. I learned that day that I’m not the fighting type, but I also learned that I don’t like giving my stuff up to a bully. Hell no. What’s mine is mine. Even after taking a punch to the face, I didn’t give him my skateboard. At least I know that much about me. But what I don’t know is how many punches in the face I would take before giving it up. Everyone’s got a breaking point when it comes to protecting our personal possessions.

(INTRO): [INTRO MUSIC] These are true stories from the dark side of the internet. I’m Jack Rhysider. This is Darknet Diaries. [INTRO MUSIC ENDS]

JW: Happy Thursday.

JACK: Happy Thursday, yes. So, you started your Twitter account when?

JW: Oh, gosh. What year did Twitter launch? ‘06, ‘07? Somewhere – six months, five months after it launched, originally.

JACK: This is JW. At least, that’s what he goes by on Twitter. JW is just a two-letter username which is rare indeed. He created it just months after Twitter launched, which is why he was able to grab it. Not many users were on the site back then. JW works as a software designer and has done a lot of work for different mobile applications, so he’s a bit of an early adopter when it comes to things like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, which launched in 2006.

JW: The internet was a smaller place. It was just a small community and I didn’t know personally the team behind Twitter, but I knew people who knew them. So it’s just, you try it out, everything that people put out on the web. Like oh, that looks cool; let’s give it a shot.

JACK: Twitter was really different back then, too.

JW: Because Twitter was text-based and the limitation was the number of characters that you could fit into an SMS, which again was originally the 140 characters that Twitter became known for, your username came out of that count. So, there was an incentive to have a short username. It made – gave people the ability to effectively send a few more characters your direction if they didn’t have to use so many characters in their username. So, what’s the shortest possible way that someone could reach me? My initials, you know. So, let’s roll with JW.

JACK: He was able to snag the same handle, JW, for his Instagram when it came out, too, giving him two super-short usernames on two of the biggest social media platforms around. They just weren’t big yet. As time went on, JW started meeting others who had snagged two-letter usernames too, and he got to know some of them.

JW: I know of several other two-letter usernames, and there’s a little bit of a –I’ll say a club, if you will, of – there’s some cache of like oh, you were around early enough to grab one of those really short ones.

JACK: [MUSIC] Now, having a short two-letter handle like this is sought-after. It’s coveted. A lot of people wish they had a short username, but JW was taken and nobody seemed to bother him about that fact, at least not for the first ten years of him having it. But after a long time of him actively using the accounts, he started to get some more direct messages about it.

JW: At some point maybe five or six years ago, I noticed an uptick in DMs from randos that are just like oh, hey, would you give me your username? Would you sell me your username? Again, it being JW, inevitably there’d be a John White and a James Wilson and a Jeremiah Wilcot, and everybody wants JW. They’re all looking for the initials there.

JACK: Of course, JW wasn’t interested in giving his username to someone else. He really liked it. It was important to him. But the messages started coming in more and more, and at some point he got tired of answering all these people, and he just stopped responding altogether.

JW: I don’t reply to any of them. You get a couple a day and you just kinda shrug it off and they all go into the other inbox anyhow. You don’t pay attention to it.

JACK: Then he starts getting contacted not just by individuals but also by random companies and brands saying hey, we’d like to buy your username. Let’s make a deal. At one point, he was even offered $5,000 for his Instagram name which flattered him, but he turned it down by just not responding at all.

JW: I just never had any interest. I had enough vested in the username online due to my usage across these networks, so I’ve never given that any thought.

JACK: By 2017 or ‘18, the messages started to get more aggressive. People would private message him and say hey, I really want this handle. Why won’t you give it to me and why won’t you respond to my messages? It was around this time that JW started noticing other people with short usernames getting the same kind of treatment. It wasn’t his name in particular; it was all names that were short and desirable.

JW: I had a friend three or four years ago who had a very short Instagram name who – someone had attempted to SIM-swap his phone number in order to gain access to his handle.

JACK: Uh, whoa. That’s getting a bit extreme now. SIM-swapping is when someone contacts your phone company pretending to be you so they can move your phone number to their phone without your knowledge. Then once they have control of your phone number, they can go about resetting your passwords on Instagram, your e-mail, or whatever and take control of your accounts. Basically, someone tried to steal his friend’s Instagram account by hacking his phone number. Obviously, this is all unsettling, to suddenly have your phone not working and realize someone else has control of your phone number. But JW felt lucky because in his situation, nobody was SIM-swapping him and he was just ignoring all the requests that people sent him, hoping they’d get the hint and go away. But instead, things started to get strange.

JW: Sometime spring of last year, so this would have been February-ish of 2020, I woke up one morning and I had a message from my mom on my phone. She lives back in Texas. It was effectively a hey, give me a call. Did you try to have pizzas delivered to us this morning? [MUSIC] I called her back. I’m like, what’s up? She’s like well, yeah, the pizza delivery guy is here. I can’t remember if it was Pizza Hut or Dominoes or whatnot. They said you wanted to deliver pizzas to us. I thought well, that’s weird. No, I didn’t send you pizzas. I definitely had a little bit of a spidey – it was one of those like, this feels like a social engineering sort of thing that someone would pull, either trying to get credit card numbers or a social security number. It smelled funny so I was like, don’t take any pizzas. I didn’t send any pizzas. Don’t give them any personal information. Send them back.

JACK: JW hangs up the phone and is a bit confused and just weirded out by that. Whatever was going on wasn’t clear. A pizza was delivered for his name but to his mom’s house who’s in another state? That’s what happened, but why, and what does it mean? Was it a strange error? Maybe. Was it someone screwing with him? Maybe. But none of this made sense to him.

JW: Then an hour later, I get a call or a text from my uncle who lives in a different city also in Texas, and got the same thing; hey, did you send your grandfather and I some pizzas? We got Dominoes here. They’re wanting to deliver these pizzas. I’m like no, don’t take the pizzas. I don’t know what this is, but somebody’s trying to get some information from us. Again, it’s – you work in tech long enough, you realize everything – there’s always a scam being run somewhere. So, that was weird and it was definitely one of those like, you were aware that somebody was trying to find some angle on you.

JACK: Yeah, this is definitely getting weird; now two pizzas to two of his family members. That’s freaky. On top of all this, the pandemic was just starting, so the world seemed scary and out of control. But then again, it’s just pizza. No one got hurt, no one got threatened, so maybe it was just some kind of weird prank. A few weeks go by and things quiet down. No more strange pizzas and no clear message from anyone explaining why these pizzas came. April rolls in and so does the pandemic. People were home a lot more at this point, and you should know that JW is married and has kids, and they all live with him. His daughter is a teenager and one night, something happened while everyone was at home.

JW: It was about 8:00. I live in a small town, Northern California. We were working a puzzle as one did during the first couple weeks of Covid. We were doing a puzzle; my kids were in their room. My oldest daughter and my wife were shopping for some stuff online [MUSIC] and my phone buzzed a couple times. Because we were doing stuff, I didn’t even flip it over to take stock of who was trying to get ahold of me. A few minutes after my phone had buzzed, all of a sudden, my daughter’s phone rang and she picked it up and said hello or whatever, and ran – just bolted for the front door, ran out the front door. We called after her; I thought, what are you doing? She’s early in her teens and I thought well, that’s weird. One of her friends must have said something or done something, and she went out the door.

JACK: A few minutes pass and JW’s daughter still hasn’t come back inside. But she’s a teenager, so who knows what she’s up to out there?

JW: So, I continued working the puzzle and about five minutes later, my phone buzzes again. This time I did flip it over, and it was my daughter calling me, presumably from outside. I pick it up and say, you know, what’s up? She says – her voice is all trembling. She says dad, you gotta – you need to come outside right now. The police are here. I was like well, what? What do they want? She’s like dad, just come outside; the police are here. So, I go to the front door which again is still kinda cracked open, and I walk out on the front porch. I’m greeted with a floodlight shining in my eyes and a bunch of officers with their rifles trained on me. They say sir, put your hands in the air, hands in the air. I was just flabbergasted.

JACK: There were over forty officers in JW’s front yard and in the street right in front of his house, and they all had their weapons drawn and pointed right at him. This is such an intense and scary situation for anyone to be in. JW had no idea why any of these cops were here and why they were all so focused heavily on him. But on top of that, he lives in a small town which didn’t even have this many cops total. So, it meant that county and state police were present, and the highway patrol was there, and even a SWAT team. They were all heavily armed and ready to shoot at JW for any reason.

JW: The first words out of my mouth were have I been swatted? It was a little bit incredulous, ‘cause why on earth would there be a bunch of police in my yard with guns pointed at me? I was familiar with the idea of swatting. I had heard about it happening in the gaming community, and I had no idea why it would be happening to me, but that was – those were the first words out of my mouth. You could see the collective shoulder sigh of all these officers.

JACK: This diffuses some of the tension, but the officers were still very fixed on JW, and they were clearly here for him. They tell him to put his hands on his head and walk backwards towards them. They frisk him and [MUSIC] search him for weapons, then they start asking him some questions.

JW: Where is your wife? Where are your kids? My wife’s inside. My other two kids are inside doing whatever. They said, we’ve received a call that you murdered your wife and that the house is doused in gasoline and you’re holding your kids hostage. We’re gonna need to clear it. I mean, even just playing this back now, it’s just surreal.

JACK: So, they sent officers and some sniffing dogs into the house to check out the situation. Of course, they find his wife and kids are all fine and there’s no gasoline in the house. While that’s all going on, an officer starts to explain more details of the call they received.

JW: They explained to me that they’ve received a phone call from my phone number claiming to be me, that it said, again, I’ve killed my wife, my kids are locked in the bathroom and I’ve covered the house in gasoline, and if you try to come in, I’m gonna kill cops. That was the message that they told 911 when they called in under my name. So, when you say I’m gonna kill cops, that puts everybody on edge. They obviously came prepared for the worst.

JACK: Jeez, it’s incredible that more didn’t go wrong in this situation. Whether it was JW or his daughter who ran out the door, one bad read on this situation or incorrect move, and this could have ended in tragedy. Oh, and if you were wondering why the daughter went outside first, it turns out she got a text from a neighbor asking why police were pulling up to our house. She went out and almost surprised them before they were actually ready, and they got her away from the house.

JW: Credit to her for keeping a level head, because I think that helped diffuse the situation in a well, no, my dad in fact has not killed my mom and he is, in fact, inside the house doing a puzzle and not burying the place in gasoline.

JACK: By this point, the police have realized JW wasn’t a manic killer and he indeed got swatted. That is, someone spoofed his phone number, impersonated him, and gave his name and address and reported a false emergency so the SWAT team would come scare him. But now that the police understood this, they put their weapons away and went inside the house to talk with the family.

JW: We all went back inside and the local officer is like well, this swatting stuff happens. Do you have any enemies? Asking my kids, do you have – are there people at school that you’re – that you might be upset with? Asked my kids, do you play any games? Of course, my son is like well, yes; my dad and I play Mario. I’m just like, I don’t think that’s – that’s not what they’re talking about.

JACK: As far as I know, nobody’s been swatted over Mario, but when online competitive games get serious, people do become so enraged that they swat another player in the game. But this was not what JW or his family was involved with, so he tried coming up with any other reason why he might have been swatted, which put his family in danger and all this. But nothing came to mind. He doesn’t have enemies or rivals in the world that would be so mad at him that they would do this to him.

JW: It was at that moment, somehow just wracking your brain on why would somebody do this, that my wife kinda point-blank asks [MUSIC] could this have anything to do with the pizzas? Could this be something to do with your Instagram name? It was one of those like, well, that’s a – sounds weird, but that’s a reasonable thought. So, I popped open my phone and I open Instagram. At the top of my messages, there was a message from an individual with the username SIMswapper that said if you don’t give me your username, I know where you live and I’m going to continue to harass you and your wife and your children, and they left my address. At this point I showed it to the police officer and my wife opened up her Instagram. She herself had a message from the same individual, and her message said here’s your address, and if you don’t convince your husband to give me his username, JW, I’m gonna continue to harass you and your kids.

JACK: There it is; the message was finally clear. The pizzas and the SWAT incident was all because someone else wanted his username. Unbelievable. This is a serious crime that they just committed so they could bully him out of his username.

JW: Like, really? Someone would swat you over your username? Of course, for me, I kinda feel the same way. This is the dumbest thing. Also, just never mind the fact that you could have had somebody killed. Like, my daughter could be dead. My kids are processing. You’re a half-step away from like, something goes wrong and someone’s dead, and that’s a real – that’s a very real thought that we were all processing in that moment.

JACK: The police leave and JW’s heart rate returns to normal. He had a smart watch on at the time which actually measured his heart rate, and he remembers looking at the data from that night.

JW: At 8:15 there’s a spike where – whatever my normal rate is, is 80, 89 resting, where it goes to 150 just like that.

JACK: We’re gonna take a quick break but stay with us because after the break, the investigation begins. JW can’t believe all this happened to him, but he starts thinking about his other friends who also have short usernames, and so he starts messaging them to tell them what happened.

JW: I text and say hey, this happened to me. Somebody sent my family member pizzas a couple weeks ago and I was swatted tonight, and this is really messed up and it appears to be over my username. This friend immediately messages me back and his message his holy shit, I’ve been getting pizzas sent to my house for the past two weeks. That was one of those chills-up-your-spine moment and I was like well, man, what – you know. It didn’t end well here. So, this friend is like well, I know X, Y, Z other people who also have common usernames or short usernames, and within a couple minutes, we’ve spun up a text thread and it turns out – we found seven people right off the bat that are also receiving pizzas. It’s at this moment that it’s one of those like, oh, this is a thing.

JACK: Together, JW and this texting group start sharing as much information as they can with one another, trying to find patterns in these threats. At the same time, they also opened up a case with the FBI, and they’re feeding the FBI information. People are sharing screenshots of messages and numbers that they’ve been receiving, and they start putting all these pieces together. JW’s friends also contacted their local police saying hey, look, I might get swatted and you should know I’m not a dangerous person and would never do something like that. Sure enough, just after they told the police that, one of his friends got swatted. Because he tipped off the police early, this really made the case that this is a serious problem going around, that someone is willing to commit a string of crimes to get usernames for a particular group of people. So, the FBI was more interested in the case after that incident.

[MUSIC] Now, when someone dials 911, the call is recorded, and the feds were reviewing these calls, looking for patterns. The feds noticed that it was the same voice on the 911 calls that JW and his friends were getting. There was evidence suggesting that this was all orchestrated by a small group of people, like two or three. Whoever was behind this wasn’t slowing down. They continued to harass more people over their Twitter and Instagram names. You might be wondering why these people would be so interested in getting these usernames; well, it’s because there’s a market for this kind of thing. There are websites out there which you can list and sell short and special user accounts for social media sites. A short, two-letter username might go for $5,000, $10,000, maybe as high as $100,000. So, people sometimes go to great lengths to get control of these usernames and then put them on the gray market and sell them to make thousands of dollars.

This has opened up a whole new world of criminal behavior; hacking into accounts and changing passwords, SIM-swapping people to try to gain access to an account, or straight-up bullying and harassment. If you get enough creepy pizza deliveries or even swatting attempts, eventually you’ll want it to stop and may just give in to the bullying. Everyone has a breaking point. So, that’s the problem. These people were harassing these people to try to get their accounts to sell and make money from it. I assume it was working, because they kept going. They were sending more pizzas to more people, and they were doing it by just ordering online and telling the pizza shop that it’ll be paid on delivery. You might wonder how they knew these people’s addresses. Well, it’s no surprise that so much of our data is out there.

If you have someone’s full name, you can probably pop it into a people search and get tons of information on it. But if you know where they work or what city they’re in or what age they are, that’ll help you even more. From there, you can get their full address, phone number, date of birth, e-mail addresses, and more. In my opinion, we’re living in a time where our personal information is spilling all over the place, polluting the internet, and it’s going to be incredibly hard to fix when the next generation wakes up and demands this stop. But the current reality is that it’s extremely easy to get information on any person today, which as you can see, can be horribly exploited. One week after JW’s swatting incident, the same person that swatted him tried to swat another person. Here’s the actual 911 call.

OPERATOR1: This is Elena. How can I help you?

IMPOSTER: Ma’am, I just shot someone.

OPERATOR1: You just shot somebody? What’s your address?

IMPOSTER: Yes, ma’am.

OPERATOR1: What’s your address?

IMPOSTER: I’m at 53 [CENSORED] Road.

OPERATOR1: Can you spell that for me?

IMPOSTER: I’m gonna fucking kill myself, ma’am.

OPERATOR1: Hold on, hold on. I need to know; who is it that you shot?

IMPOSTER: Some girl I met on an app.

OPERATOR1: Okay. Is she still breathing?

IMPOSTER: No, ma’am. She’s dead.

OPERATOR1: Okay, are you sure she’s dead?

IMPOSTER: [Inaudible] twenty minutes ago. Dead.

OPERATOR1: You saw her twenty minutes ago?

IMPOSTER: Yes.

OPERATOR1: Do you know why you shot her?

IMPOSTER: I don’t know, ma’am.

OPERATOR1: Okay, and what is your name?

IMPOSTER: My name’s Mark.

OPERATOR1: I’m sorry, what?

IMPOSTER: Mark.

OPERATOR1: Mark, what’s your last name?

IMPOSTER: Herring. I just want to kill myself, ma’am.

OPERATOR1: I need you to stay on the phone with me, okay?

IMPOSTER: I can’t take this anymore.

OPERATOR1: I need you to stay on the phone with me.

IMPOSTER: I don’t want to go to jail.

OPERATOR1: Mark, what’s your phone number that you’re calling from?

IMPOSTER: I don’t know at this moment, ma’am.

OPERATOR1: What’s the girl’s name?

IMPOSTER: I don’t know. I met her on an app.

OPERATOR1: You met her on an ad?

IMPOSTER: [Inaudible] and then we hooked up and I killed her.

OPERATOR1: Okay. Do you know where she came from?

IMPOSTER: No, ma’am.

OPERATOR1: Okay.

IMPOSTER: I can’t remember. It is a few kilometers away.

OPERATOR1: Okay. How long – it’s a few kilometers away?

IMPOSTER: Yes. That’s what it said on the app.

OPERATOR1: Okay, where are you calling from?

IMPOSTER: I’m calling from the house, ma’am.

OPERATOR1: You’re calling from where?

IMPOSTER: The house.

OPERATOR1: Okay, and what’s your house? What’s your house address?

IMPOSTER: I already said, ma’am. It’s 53 [CENSORED] Road.

OPERATOR1: You said that she came from a few kilometers away?

IMPOSTER: That’s what it said on the app. I don’t know if it’s right or not, but it – that’s what it said. You asked where she came from, so I’m just telling you what it said, ma’am. I just want to kill myself.

OPERATOR1: Okay.

IMPOSTER: I can’t…

OPERATOR1: Where’s the weapon right now?

IMPOSTER: It is by my side, ma’am.

OPERATOR1: Is there anybody else in the house with you?

IMPOSTER: No, no. I’m gonna blow this place all up, ma’am. I can’t do this.

OPERATOR1: Are there any other weapons with you?

IMPOSTER: No. Just a pipe bomb that’s from [inaudible] gun.

OPERATOR1: Where is the pipe bomb?

IMPOSTER: I put it at both doors; in the back and at the front. Ma’am, I’m gonna go now. I’m gonna go kill myself. I can’t do this anymore. I just don’t want to go to jail.

OPERATOR1: Okay, okay. Well, I want you to stay on the phone with me.

IMPOSTER: [Inaudible].

OPERATOR1: What was your last name again?

IMPOSTER: Herring.

OPERATOR1: How do you spell your last name?

IMPOSTER: H-E-R-R-I-N-G.

JACK: That’s what a swatting call looks like. That was not Mark Herring who made this call. That was someone in the UK. This was a prank call. Mark is from Tennessee and was sixty years old in 2020 when this happened. Strangely enough, just before this, a few unwanted pizzas arrived at Mark’s home. Well, despite the slip-up of the person saying kilometers instead of miles, this call was still convincing enough for the dispatcher to call in all available units to rush over to Mark Herring’s house. But who is this Mark Herring guy? Well, here’s an interview I found of him from 2002.

HOST: You know, when would you say that you first found out that there are these things called BBSs out there?

MARK: I remember it was January of 1979. I had just started at becoming a consultant, computer consultant. I was nineteen years old and I ended up getting a project that was from the RKO Radio Network. RKO had stations in New York. Memphis was one. That’s where I was based, in Memphis, at the time. RadioShack had a 300 Baud Cat II modem that you could drop your phone into, and we started playing around with that. [MUSIC] It was about that time I discover that there was such a thing as bulletin boards out there. But I didn’t actually connect to my first bulletin board until March of 1979. I will never forget that when I actually connected to it. It was just so magical. I thought that here it was; my computer in my bedroom was actually communicating with another computer located somewhere else. I knew I had to learn all I could about it.

JACK: Mark had a lifelong passion for computers and technology. He learned to program and eventually developed a QWK protocol. If you ever used BBSs to check your e-mail back in the 90s, QWK was a way for you to read your e-mails offline. It was Mark Herring who developed that. In 2007, just after Twitter came out, Mark registered for an account at the site, and he chose the username @Tennessee because he lived in and loved the state of Tennessee, and nobody had that name yet. You guessed it; that’s what this prank 911 call was for. They were trying to harass Mark into giving up his @Tennessee Twitter handle. But the police did not know that this was a fake 911 emergency. Over a dozen police cruisers rushed over to Mark’s house, expecting to see an armed person who may explode some pipe bombs. The police arrived in full force at Mark’s house. [MUSIC] He was inside watching TV with his girlfriend. He heard something going on outside, but didn’t know what. It sounded serious though, and he was a little worried. His daughter explains what happened next.

DAUGHTER: He went out the house with a gun because he heard someone was on his property, and he sees all these cops around him. They ask if he is Mark Herring; put your hands up. So, he tosses the gun away from him to show he’s not a threat. Hands up.

JACK: Mark was scared. He didn’t know why all these police had guns drawn on him. He threw his gun away, but that could have easily went wrong, and he knew it. His pulse was racing. His adrenaline was spiked. The officers shouted at him to keep his hands up and to come towards them. He couldn’t get the gate open on his back porch to come towards them. He shouted back; it’s stuck. The police said jump over the gate. He shouted back, I’m a sixty year old fat man; I can’t do that. He was getting increasingly worried and more upset. The police had their weapons pointed right at him and he could see that. He had absolutely no idea why the police were locked on him. The police told him to crawl under the fence towards them. He tried, but it was a small opening under the fence that he had to lay down on the ground and crawl on his belly to get through.

It wasn’t easy for him, but he eventually made it through. As he stood up, on the other side, he had a heart attack and collapsed. The police raced him to the hospital but it was too late. Mark Herring died from the heart attack. He died because someone was trying to bully him to give up his Twitter account so they could make a few thousand dollars on it. The police found no dead woman in the house or pipe bombs, and figured out this was a fake emergency and notified the FBI. This allowed the FBI to collect even more evidence on this criminal or group of criminals who did this. It turned out that Mark had received a bunch of text messages from someone demanding they give him his Twitter account, and he refused of course, which led to this. But this was more evidence the FBI was able to collect; more phone numbers, more 911 audio, more usernames from chat logs. This kind of stuff can be tracked by the FBI to figure out who all this belongs to. It was with this extra evidence that the FBI was finally able to crack the case.

JW: I received a phone call from our local FBI field agent and she informed me that they had arrested individuals, one in Memphis, Tennessee, and another in Michigan, and that somebody had also been involved in the UK as well.

JACK: The FBI called JW because the person who swatted Mark Herring was the same person who swatted JW and his friend. So, the FBI called JW to let him know they caught the guy, and the guy responsible was a seventeen-year-old from Memphis, Tennessee named Shane Sonderman.

JW: It was a sense of relief just to know that dots had been connected and they led somewhere, there were a couple of us who had been swatted but not everyone, and [MUSIC] to have this feeling of like, okay, you can kinda take that off the table for those who they hadn’t gotten to yet, so to say. Of course, at the same time, again, I – you’re watching news coverage of Breonna Taylor who was killed in a botched, messed-up police raid. Her circumstances were different. She was black. She did not live in a neighborhood where they thought to call ahead, you know? That sort of stuff kinda sits with you of like, jeez.

JACK: That’s probably the scariest part, is the possibility of these situations going all wrong. When everyone has their weapons drawn on you, it’s easy to make a mistake, which can mean the end for everything. He and his daughter were very lucky to not have been harmed, let alone killed. Swatting is extremely dangerous, especially when the callers are telling the first responders that they’re going to kill the cops. Sadly, this is not the first time someone has died from a swatting incident. Back in December 2017, a few people got into a fight over the Call of Duty video game, a first-person shooter game. Two teams, Shane and Tyler, were arguing about who’s better in the game or something stupid. It got pretty heated; Tyler started threatening Shane, and Shane gave him his address and said here, go ahead, try something. Another teenager, Casey, dared Tyler to call 911 on Shane and said he’s give him $1.50 if he’d do it. Tyler had sort of a history of doing this to people, so he took the $1.50 bet and called 911 and impersonated Shane. Here’s that actual 911 call.

TYLER: Hello?

OPERATOR2: This is 911. What’s going on? Hello?

TYLER: Yeah.

OPERATOR2: This is 911. What’s going on?

TYLER: I recently got disconnected. I had told you guys everything that happened. I was arguing with my mom and dad.

OPERATOR2: Okay. What’s your address? Hello?

TYLER: Yeah, it’s 10 [CENSORED] Street.

OPERATOR2: Okay. Tell me exactly what happened.

TYLER: We were arguing and I shot him in the head, and he’s not breathing anymore.

OPERATOR2: Okay. Do you have any weapons on you?

TYLER: Yeah, I do.

OPERATOR2: What kind of weapons do you have?

TYLER: A handgun.

OPERATOR2: What kind of handgun is it?

TYLER: I don’t know. It’s my dad’s.

OPERATOR2: What color is it?

TYLER: It’s black.

OPERATOR2: Where exactly are you at in the house?

TYLER: By the closet.

OPERATOR2: Okay, what closet?

TYLER: My mom’s.

OPERATOR2: Where’s that at in the house?

TYLER: In her room which is where she’s at, and my little brother.

OPERATOR2: You have a little brother?

TYLER: Yeah. I was on the phone with you guys earlier telling you guys about it. I just got disconnected.

OPERATOR2: Okay. Well, we’re gonna try to get you some help.

JACK: The police rushed over to the address they heard on that phone call. They shouted at the house and told the people, come outside. Someone came on the front porch. The police said to come out of the house and put your hands up and walk towards us. Here’s the audio from their bodycam footage.

OFFICER: Walk this way. Walk – [GUNSHOT]

JACK: A police officer misread the situation and shot the man who stepped onto the porch, and that one single bullet killed him. His name was Andrew Finch, and here’s the worst part of it all; this was not even Shane’s house. Shane had given Tyler the wrong address, so when Tyler called 911 and gave that address, the police went to this other guy’s house who was totally unrelated to the whole argument. Tyler, Casey, and Shane were all arrested for this. Casey got fifteen months in prison for daring Tyler to do it for $1.50. Shane has to go to court for this for giving the wrong address and inciting violence. Even though this happened in 2017, Shane’s trial is still underway. Tyler, well, he got twenty years in prison for making this prank 911 call. The family of Andrew Finch filed a civil lawsuit against the police, but so far there’s been no legal punishment for either the officer who shot him or the police department. Okay, back to JW and Mark Herring’s story. The guy the FBI arrested was seventeen-year-old Shane Sonderman, which is not the same Shane from the story I just talked about. They arrested Shane Sonderman in 2020, but they kept this quiet. It wasn’t until 2021 when Shane went to trial that this story broke to the world, even appearing on the nightly news. Here’s a clip from Nashville’s ABC News.

HOST2: New tonight; it’s called swatting. It is a growing problem across the country. [Inaudible], we told you about a victim who found himself in the middle of a swatting call after he refused to give up his Twitter handle.

JACK: JW remembers seeing the story.

JW: I was refreshing Twitter and I think it was just – yeah, whatever local Memphis station or whatever of like oh, here’s this trial or sentencing of the guy that killed this guy in a swatting incident. I was like well, that pertains to my interest. So, I clicked on it and it was like, it was my god, it’s the same kid. I had no idea that he was also the perpetrator in the incident involving Tennessee. That was heavy. I immediately sent it to my wife, and you take a deep breath because that’s – of course in the moment when it happens, that’s your first thought; it’s like, somebody’s gonna get killed, [MUSIC] and somebody did.

JACK: The stuff that happened to JW happened to Mark Herring, too. They both got unwanted pizzas. They both got swatted, and both by the same attackers. But the difference is, JW lived through it, which gives him the shivers thinking about this incident all over.

JW: So, yeah, I just – you think about that and this poor guy, you know? Shit’s messed up.

JACK: Shane Sonderman turned twenty years old in 2021 and took his case to trial. It turns out he wasn’t working alone. There was another juvenile involved, a teenager from the UK. They worked together to try to harass people and get their accounts. The UK team is who made all these phone calls. Together, they targeted six people with harassment campaigns to get peoples’ accounts in order to sell them. One was a woman they harassed who had a two-letter Instagram name, and what they did to her was really spooky. They got on Grindr, a dating app, and connected with some people in her town and then gave someone her address and said come on over, but just walk in when you come by. So, a person, a total stranger came to her house and tried to walk into her house. Crazy, huh? It also came out that when Shane was arrested, he was processed and then let out on bond. When he got back home, victims started seeing more text messages, harassment messages, which led me to believe he just went right back to doing what he was doing before he was arrested.

Well, this resulted in him being re-arrested. In court, he apologized to his victims, saying he had an addiction and just couldn’t stop. He blamed it on some psychiatric conditions like being bipolar. During his apology, he broke down crying and his mom pleaded with the courts to be lenient on him, but the judge was not lenient on him at all. The jury decided Shane was guilty for calling in fake emergencies and harassing people, and the judge insisted he get the maximum penalty for his crimes. So, Shane was sentenced to five years in prison for his action. The judge said he would have given him more if it was possible. That other teen in the UK, well, the feds were unable to extradite him because of his age, and we have no idea what the UK courts did with him. I couldn’t track it, and no journalist I know could track it, because he was a minor at the time and we don’t know his name. The UK courts aren’t very forthcoming about what happens to people that get arrested there. [MUSIC] So, what can be done about this? Well, it’s a complicated scenario that has no simple solution, but I believe the bigger issue here is just online harassment in general.

It’s out of hand not just towards people with good usernames, but for much smaller reasons, too. There’s so much online harassment towards women and minorities, and these can often lead to some horrific stuff happening to the victim. Even though in this case the harasser was arrested and put in prison, scores of cases go unsolved and the harasser just walks away with no consequences. I think the first place to start with defending against this is just making sure your digital life is secure. I’ve got five suggestions for you, and I think they’re pretty effective at helping you be more secure. First is use a password manager. This will allow you to make a unique, long, complex password that’s different for every website you have a login for. Reusing passwords is a huge no-no. Oh, and change your passwords whenever you change relationships if that person may have your password somehow. All the people in this story see a constant attack on their accounts of other people trying to guess their passwords or reset it, so make it hard for anyone who’s trying to do this.

Second, keep your software and operating system up to date. I mean on your computer, your tablet, your phone; all the apps, all the operating systems. You should just update them all whenever you have a chance to do it. Third, antivirus scans are generally a good idea to run regularly. Fourth is use two-factor authentication whenever you can, and fifth is to use encrypted messaging apps like Signal. Doing this will make it harder for people to infiltrate your digital life. I’m also a huge online privacy advocate and if you see me online, you know I don’t give out my location or show my face or any personal details. This is why. I don’t want this kind of thing to happen to me ever, so I keep a degree of separation between my online digital life and my real-world private life. You should, too. But if you already let out too much stuff about you, it’s okay. You can work on taking some of that back off the internet. I recommend the book Extreme Privacy: What It Takes to Disappear or The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy.

There’s helpful information in these books to help you remove your personal data from the internet and to remain private. But you know what? There’s actually too much advice for me to list here, so I rounded up my favorite links and put them on my site. Just go to darknetdiaries.com/stalkerware to see it all. I’ll have a link in the description, too. But of course, it’s not all on you to keep yourself private and secure. Software, websites, apps, and operating systems, they need to be secure in order for us to be secure. Some of them can and should do more to stop online harassment, and the police should become more knowledgeable and take this more seriously and learn how to investigate this kind of harassment more effectively. [MUSIC] I hope things get better, but in the meantime, stay safe and protect yourself.

(OUTRO): A big thank-you to JW for sharing this horrific story with us. You can find him on Twitter; just look for those two letters, JW, and that’s him. If you’re sick of hearing ads on this show, you’re in luck. There’s a way to never hear ads again. Just go to patreon.com/darknetdiaries or sign up for Darknet Diaries Plus on Apple Podcasts. You’ll get an ad-free feed for supporting the show there, and it also helps with the production of the show, so thanks. Also, as a reminder, there are full transcripts for every episode, as well as original artwork on darknetdiaries.com, so check that out, too. This show is made by me, who likes pineapple on pizza, Jack Rhysider. This episode was produced and sound designed by the zippy-grippy Andrew Meriwether. Our transcriptions are done by the key-clacking Leah Hervoly. Our associate producer just back from the lo-fi luau is Ray [redacted] and our theme music is by the bumping buddy, Breakmaster Cylinder. I love pressing the F5 key. It’s so refreshing. This is Darknet Diaries.

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Transcription performed by Leah Hervoly www.leahtranscribes.com