A California teenager has allegedly been unmasked as a prolific “swatter-for-hire” who charged $75 to target high schools, places of worship, US Senators and the Supreme Court with bogus bomb threats and mass shooting calls, according to law enforcement officials.
Alan Winston Filion, 17, was arrested on 18 January at his home in Lancaster, Los Angeles County, and extradited to Seminole County, Florida, where he was charged with four felonies related to making a false police report of a mass shooting at a local mosque in May 2023.
Prosecutors allege Mr Filion told a dispatch operator that he had a handgun and explosive devices and was going to kill everyone inside the Masjid Al Hayy Mosque in Sanford, according to court documents obtained by The Independent.
“Hello, I am going to commit a mass shooting in the name of Satan,” he allegedly said, while playing audio of gunfire in the background. Around 30 heavily armed police officers were sent to the mosque in response, Seminole County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
Mr Filion made his first appearance in court on Wednesday on charges including false reporting of a bomb or weapon of mass destruction, and use of a two-way communication device while involved in an act of terrorism, which are both punishable by decades in prison.
Prosecutors allege that the teenager is responsible for “hundreds of swatting and bomb threat incidents throughout the United States” under the pseudonym Torswats.
He has not been charged in relation to any other swatting incidents. Mr Filion’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment by The Independent.
According to a probable cause affidavit, Mr Filion advertised his swatting services on the “Torswats” channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram.
The Telegram channel charged $40 for a “EMS/Fire/gas leak” callout, $50 for a “major police response” and $75 for a “bomb threat/mass shooting threat”, according to investigators.
“All swats will be done ASAP or present time”, the channel claimed, and offered returning customers a discount, according to the court documents.
Dozens of recordings of previous “swats” were posted to the channel where the caller gleefully took credit for threatening schools in Texas, Iowa, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, authorities say.
Investigators say they have also inked the Torswats Telegram channel to threats against US Senators and the Supreme Court, and to five threats to “bomb, shoot or otherwise conduct violence” at Anacortes High School in Skagit County, Washington, in October 2022.
The perpetrator appeared to use a “text to speech” programme to disguise their voice, and caller ID spoofing to hide their location.
He was eventually tracked down to his home in California after investigators pieced together a digital trail of Lord of the Rings -related usernames on YouTube and Discord, according to charging documents.
Investigators had been monitoring the Telegram channel for nearly two years before his arrest, which was first reported by Wired.
The “Torswats” channel was first linked to hundreds of fake mass shooting and bomb threat callouts nationwide after an investigation by Motherboard in April 2023.
Swatting incidents, where a person calls in a false report of an emergency, crime, mass shooting, or kidnapping, which place the homeowner in danger of being shot by armed responders, have spiked in recent months.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley this week revealed she was targeted by swatting hoaxes twice in two days. She is among the dozens of lawmakers, Trump judges, celebrities and public figures to have seen tactical response teams turn up at their homes in response to the false callouts.
On Christmas Day alone, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, GOP lawmakers Marjorie Taylor Greene and Brandon Williams were targeted.
Even the White House itself was “swatted” last month, sending multiple Washington DC fire and emergency units to the nation’s most famous address.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre addressed the growing swatting scourge from the presidential podium, saying it was “creating a danger and a risk to our society”.
In May 2023, the FBI launched a national database to track swatting incidents and share information between hundreds of police departments and law enforcement agencies across the country.
An FBI spokesperson told The Independent that more than 550 swatting incidents have been reported to the centre in the past seven months.
Swatting evolved from online gaming circles in the early 2000s and has since become an everyday form of criminal harassment.
Hoax callouts to synagogues, churches, universities, sports stadiums are also becoming more common.
Mr Filion is being charged as an adult, and was denied bond at a first court appearance in Florida on Wednesday.
“Swatting is a perilous and senseless crime, which puts innocent lives in dangerous situations and drains valuable resources,” Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma said in a statement after the teenager’s arrest.
“Gratitude is extended to all agencies involved at the local, state, and federal levels, and this particular investigation and case stands as a stern warning: swatting will face zero tolerance, and measures are in place to identify and prosecute those responsible for such crimes.”