New Jersey Game Store Swatting Takes An Uglier Turn

New Jersey Game Store Swatting Takes An Uglier Turn

Gamers attending a monthly social gathering at Digital Press Video Games in Clifton, New Jersey, Saturday evening had no idea the sudden massive police presence outside the store was pointed their way, until a caller posing as a fire department representative started giving them questionable instructions.

According to local reports, the Passaic County Sheriff's Office received a call alerting them to a hostage situation at Digital Press Video Games shortly after 7 PM on Saturday evening. The caller described a situation in which men with shotguns were holding multiple people hostage, several of which were already wounded.

In response to the call the Passaic County Sheriff's Office dispatched a SWAT team and hostage negotiators, while the New Jersey State Police sent reinforcements. The force surrounded the commercial shopping strip where Digital Press is located, closing off Route 46 in both directions.

Digital Press web administrator and podcaster Frankie Viturello, who provided Kotaku with the full firsthand report of the incident found below, tells us that a large group of around 40 had gathered at the store for the monthly meeting of "NAVA" (North Atlantic Video game Aficionados), an event where video games are discussed and traded among fans.

Viturello describes what was going on inside the store as authorities converged.

"Everything seemed normal to everybody up until the 8 PM hour when we noticed that Clifton police were converging on the streets outside of the store. We speculated that there was some type of armed conflict going on in one of the other businesses on the street, so we told the attendees to lock and stay as far away from the front entrance as possible and/or to converge in the basement of the store (where several of us were already hanging out and chatting about game-related things)."

Listening to police band radio via their phones for some clue as to what was going on, all attendees could discern was that there was some sort of "ongoing incident" occurring in the area.

About an hour after arriving, authorities slowly started to converge on Digital Press.

It was around this time a call came through to the store. According to Viturello and corroborated by the female employee of the store who answered the call, a man claiming to be a representative of the Clifton's Fire Department was on the other end.

"At one point during that time an individual called the store claiming to be a representative of Clifton's Fire Department and instructed an unsuspecting employee to close the store's front window blinds. They willingly complied with the first request, which wasn't too out of the ordinary (and, really, what do we know about protocol in these situations). Only when the caller then attempted to instruct the employee to go outside and shout something to the effect of: "Clear the area, somebody has a gun!" did they realise that something wasn't right..."

According to the female employee, that was the moment she handed the phone to store owner Joe Santulli, who hung up and called the Clifton police to find out what was going on.

Once the situation inside Digital Press was explained, the SWAT team moved in. Viturello describes what happened next.

"All that taken into account by the police on hand, protocol still dictated that they needed to enter the building to asses the threat in full riot gear with assault weapons, address each of us individually, take each person out individually, handcuff each of us, and sit us down in the business next door to Digital Press for approximately 20 minutes where we waited for them to clear the store, do a sweep, confirm that it was a hoax and then remove our cuffs and take our personal information down."

No arrests were made, no injuries reported, and soon the NAVA meeting was back in full swing.

Police are still investigating the source of the initial call, as well as the follow-up call to the store itself.

Swatting is a vile act in and of itself, its perpetrators often feeling as if they are untouchable, even when they are not. The idea that a person making a false report to the authorities in order to illicit an armed response would then attempt to further confuse the situation by posing as a member of said authorities in order to escalate an already tense situation is chilling.

What follows is Digital Press web administrator and podcaster Frankie Viturello's full account of the incident.

The store is owned/operated by Joe Santulli, one of the curators of the upcoming Video game History Museum in Frisco Texas. Joe is always present at these events and is a gracious and fun host to all. He gives back to the classic gaming community in every conceivable way.

Our "NAVA" events are monthly, open to all and run from about 2PM to midnight. It's an incredibly friendly atmosphere filled with swap-meet style sales and trading of classic game merchandise, high score contests, tournaments and classic console and arcade free-play sessions.

Everything seemed normal to everybody up until the 8 PM hour when we noticed that Clifton police were converging on the streets outside of the store. We speculated that there was some type of armed conflict going on in one of the other businesses on the street, so we told the attendees to lock and stay as far away from the front entrance as possible and/or to converge in the basement of the store (where several of us were already hanging out and chatting about game-related things).

After the police didn't disperse we started listening to local police bands on our smartphones (what a wonderful age of digital technology when you can literally just download an app and start listening in to police radio). We noticed that there was some chatter about the ongoing incident but they weren't mentioning what business on the street it was happening at. (Turns out since it was reported as happening in Digital Press they likely didn't want to raise any awareness to the potential "shooter" inside).

This went on for the better part of an hour as the police shut down the street and slowly SLOWLY converged on the establishment. At one point during that time an individual called the store claiming to be a representative of Clifton's Fire Department and instructed an unsuspecting employee to close the store's front window blinds. They willingly complied with the first request, which wasn't too out of the ordinary (and, really, what do we know about protocol in these situations). Only when the caller then attempted to instruct the employee to go outside and shout something to the effect of:

"Clear the area, somebody has a gun!"

did they realise that something wasn't right and that they were being coaxed into doing things to escalate the potential for police violence against each and every one of the innocent bystanders at the event.

As we listened on via the police scanners in the basement we heard this all playing out in parts still generally ignorant of what was going on outside or that it was actually us that was the target of a swatting prank.

After the mystery caller made his "big play", Joe Santulli called the Clifton Police to explain and ask what was going on. He explained to them that this was a regular gathering/party atmosphere of friendly individuals and that there was certainly no shooting, gunman or hostage situation.

All that taken into account by the Police on hand, police protocol still dictated that they needed to enter the building to asses the threat in full riot gear with assault weapons, address each of us individually, take each person out individually, handcuff each of us, and sit us down in the business next door to Digital Press for approximately 20 minutes where we waited for them to clear the store, do a sweep, confirm that it was a hoax and then remove our cuffs and take our personal information down.

While it was certainly a very dangerous situation with a motivated individual who attempted to do everything possible to cause the potential for physical harm, I feel that the Clifton Police acted appropriately, were professional throughout and when the event was over some of them even hung around NAVA (which restarted immediately after the event) probably because they wanted to make sure that we were safe ... but we could tell that they were interested in the crates of Atari and NES merchandise out for sale/trade.

The classic gaming community is a very tightly knit one and as much as some of us were momentarily rattled by the swatting, we were back to discussing potential themes for next month's events within an hour of it happening.

We're thinking all "law-enforcement" themed games and tournaments for next month's event (NARC, Lethal Enforcers, Virtua Cop, etc.).

We can't publicly speculate on the individual responsible or their motivations during any police investigation into the matter, however the police are looking into the cause and individual(s) responsible.

We thank Mr Viturello for reaching out to Kotaku.

Picture: CBS 2 New York


Comments

    I really don't understand how 'swatting' became a thing.

    Such a stupid waste of resources, potentially life threatening, and the instigator will be caught. Bloody morons!

      The problem is that the phone calls that spark swatting events come in (for anyone who knows what they're doing) through VOIP and an IP-masking VPN. Usually it's only the incompetent that get caught.

      Then, when people do get caught, penalties are usually (not always, but usually) pretty light if they're enforced at all.

      So it's a situation where there's maximum inconvenience for everybody (someone might even get shot! Oh, the lulz!), a large deal of embarrassment (particularly if someone's streaming at the time) and it's at no cost to the perpetrator.

    Nice to see Rational people dealing with being Swatted. This is getting ridiculous but, as if anybody isn't going to be suspicious when the fire department wants them to go outside and yell about having a gun.

    I am so glad this BS doesn't happen in Australia (please tell me I'm right), but I'm starting to think there need to be serious penalties for the people who commit this weird crime.

      I am so glad this BS doesn't happen in Australia (please tell me I'm right)

      Unfortunately, you're not. It's not as prevalent here as it is in the US, but it happens.

      It shouldn't be considered strange that the call came from the fire department. US emergency services aren't uniformal across the 50 states. In most states, the state ambulance service is usually a function of the fire department (as one example).

        It's not being called by the fire department that was suspicious but being told to go outside and yell about having a firearm. More of what was asked not who was asking it.

      There has been one incident in Queensland and allegedly some others throughout Australia but nothing close to that which we see coming out of murricah every other week

        I was so hoping we didn't take up this bullshit trend. It really sucks to be wrong about this.

    doesnt happen yet, no doubt some idiot will decide to emulate it one day.

    The anonymity offered by the internet really is plaguing our society. People do and say all sorts of nasty things online because they think they can get away with it. I have always hold myself accountable for everything I do, online or not. If I won't say and do it in person, I will not do it online. I will endeavor to teach my kids to behave the same way when they are old enough to understand. I think the majority of people are the same as me and hopefully there will be less and less immature people doing stupid things like swatting.

    Last edited 31/03/15 9:41 am

      The anonymity offered by the internet really is plaguing our society

      Be careful with the way you structure your arguments. It isn't the anonymity causing the problem, it is the people being selfish and ignorant causing these issues.
      Of course it all comes down to a lack of empathy, one of the current limitations of our current means of communication on the internet is that it strips away a lot of social layers normally present. It's so easy to depersonalise everything you see, that people forget that it's an actual other human being.

      This lack of empathy isn't new to the internet, it's just that we face new challenges socially as we move forwards technologically.

      It's a social problem, not a technological one. I'm not saying you were saying anonymity on the internet needs to be removed, but the way you structured your argument makes it very easy to come to that conclusion.

      Anonymity is important, and something which should be protected. Creating a society where people respect one another is another issue entirely. I don't like the argument that people need public accountability to be decent, it's like saying we need religion or some other threat of hell to not be immoral monsters. I can be a decent and kind person just by realising everyone is a person just like me.

      We need to remove the toxic attitudes.

        With the wall of anonymity comes the freedom to act on impulse with no regard for personal recompense. These swatting incidents go unpunished due to anonymity. All emergency calls must be treated as credible (except for the "I lost my keys" variety) and responded to as such but things like the name and address of the caller are not required. I believe there was a push to have a system implemented to track the caller while the call was active, not sure about its progress however. If a swatter was immediately identifiable I suspect that the act of swatting would soon be a thing of the past.

          So you use a payphone in a quiet street somewhere? Or a stolen phone?

          Like anything, if someone *really* wants to do it, they will. The problem is annoying, and very distruptive, but it's only a very small minority of people doing it. Why implement systems which put a blanket effect on every single person for the actions of a very small few?

          This is the exact attitude is what has got us this whole 'metadata' retention plan........ You cannot sacrifice liberties for the sake of 'safety'. Otherwise, what is the point of said liberties?

          All rights also come with responsibilities. In this case, it is a responsibility to not be an ignorant, selfish arsehole to others [victim, police resources etc...]. Removing rights completely is not a valid solution.

            with regards to the tracing emergency calls it was more the idea about quick response to someone in need, perhaps if they didn't know where they were etc. As to civil liberties, if someone puts your life in danger deliberately wouldn't you too hope there were some way they could be brought to justice?

              It's not about what you want, feel or hope, it's about what's best for everyone and considering every aspect of the idea and it's relevance, fairness and efficacy moving forward.

                as stated, its relevance predates swatting and as a tool for emergency services to more effectively help people in need, the ability to trace an emergency calls usefulness far outweighs any privacy encroachment that may or may not be imposed, indeed the only times when that would be an issue are in times where the caller is being a retard (in the case of the lost keys example) or for malicious intent where holding someone accountable for wasting resources would be fair.
                Also, I never made mention of removing anonymity from the internet as seems implied, I find it healthy, but the moment that you step from the net to the real world, with real world consequences, your real world persona should be the one held accountable.

        Yes, I see what you are saying and I agree with you. The root of the issues are as you said, lack of empathy. The anonymity just added fuel to the fire.

        Arguments about freedom of anonymity aside. Anonymity and accountability or lack there of keeps people in check. It has been well studied that people act differently under anonymity. Whether this is unlocking subconscious selfishness or not the results done lie.

          They don't lie but they've clearly been misinterpreted.

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