FBI warns of swatting attacks on smart home devices

  • January 11, 2021
  • Steve Rogerson

The FBI is warning US households to protect smart home devices with cameras and voice capabilities against swatting attacks.

Swatting is a term used to describe a hoax call made to emergency services, typically reporting an immediate threat to human life, to draw a response from law enforcement and the Swat team. Confusion on the part of homeowners or responding officers has resulted in health-related or violent consequences and pulls limited resources away from valid emergencies.

The FBI says householders should use complex, unique passwords and enable two-factor authentication.

Smart home device manufacturers recently notified law enforcement that offenders have been using stolen email passwords to access smart devices with cameras and voice capabilities and carry out swatting attacks.

Swatting may be motivated by revenge, used as a form of harassment, or used as a prank, but it is a serious crime that may have potentially deadly consequences.

Offenders often use spoofing technology to anonymise their own phone numbers to make it appear to first responders as if the emergency call is coming from the victim’s phone number. This enhances their credibility when communicating with dispatchers.

Recently, offenders have been using victims’ smart devices, including video and audio capable home surveillance devices, to carry out swatting attacks. To gain access to the smart devices, offenders are likely taking advantage of customers who reuse their email passwords for their smart device. The offenders use stolen email passwords to log into the smart device and hijack features, including the live-stream camera and device speakers.

They then call emergency services to report a crime at the victims’ residence. As law enforcement responds to the residence, the offender watches the live stream footage and engages with the responding police through the camera and speakers. In some cases, the offender also live streams the incident on shared online community platforms.

The FBI is working with private sector partners who manufacture smart devices to advise customers about the scheme and how to avoid being victimised. The FBI is also working to alert law enforcement first responders to this threat so they may respond accordingly.

Because offenders are using stolen email passwords to access smart devices, users should practice good cyber hygiene by ensuring they have strong, complex passwords or passphrases for their online accounts, and should not duplicate the use of passwords between different online accounts. Users should update their passwords on a regular basis.

Users should also enable two-factor authentication for their online accounts and on all devices accessible through an internet connection to reduce the chance a criminal could access their devices. It is recommended that the user’s second factor for two-factor or multi-factor authentication be a mobile device number and not a secondary email account.

The FBI urges anyone who believes they may have been victimised to make a police report. If they believe their email or other smart device credentials were compromised, they should report the incident at www.ic3.gov.