EDEN, N.C. — Mexican restaurant customers, police and a national cyber security expert share a strong hunch that a powerful electronic signal emanating from a neighboring sweepstakes operation is disabling vehicles in the restaurant parking lot.
For months, patrons of El Parral at 734 S. Van Buren Road have complained that if they park on the south side of the restaurant – some 25 feet from Lucky Day sweepstakes parlor – their locks or ignition systems, or both, go haywire.
Remote control key fobs cease to work and customers describe various combinations of problems, including the inability to open, lock or start their vehicles while in close proximity to the sweepstakes parlor.
And while Eden police are investigating the problem and asking questions of Lucky Day, officials say they can’t yet confirm what is causing the mysterious disruptions, said spokesman Sgt. David Lamberth.
Investigators are trying to determine whether the sweepstakes parlor is using a "jammer’’ device to interfere with radio signals and prevent clients from cheating at high payout video games.
"I cannot verify that they are (using a jammer), but that is our speculation at this point, that that’s what they’re doing,’’ Lamberth said Wednesday. "Obviously, we don’t run into this kind of situation often. This is the first time I’ve heard of (this type of problem) in my 15 years.’’
As police assess the issue, they need direction from the Federal Communications Commission about whether jammer use is a federal crime, Lamberth said, noting officials have yet to find a state statute that specifically addresses such devices.
And investigators are delayed in consulting with the FCC because the agency is closed due to the temporary federal government shut down, Lamberth said.
"Maybe there’s a federal code that regulates the operation of those (jammers) that we’re not familiar with,’’ he said. “So we’ll get the appropriate agencies involved ..."
Meanwhile, a North Carolina-based cybercrime expert says any such jammer use would indeed be a federal crime.
“It’s patently illegal,” said Ben Levitan of Raleigh, a national expert witness who worked in the telecom industry for 30 years and testifies on cyber communication matters in state and federal courts.
Jammer use "is a violation of federal law and could be extremely serious,” Levitan said. “The FCC would take this extremely seriously ... "
Noting that 77 percent of the nation’s 911 calls are made from cell phones, Levitan said, "Once you jam (a game table), you jam the ability for communication,’’ Levitan said. "It’s really dangerous, because if someone needed to call 911 inside those places, they couldn’t.”
Fish tables explained
Lucky Day, like hundreds of North Carolina’s other sweepstakes operations and some 20-plus in Rockingham County, features games called "fish tables."
The electronic game tables, popularized in China 10 years ago, are considered legal in North Carolina because they are deemed games of skill and dexterity, rather than luck.
Players are typically rewarded cash for the number and value of animated fish they "shoot" at the aquarium-themed tables, aglow in neon blue and green.
But like all such machines, fish tables are vulnerable to cheaters who may use cell phones or other devices to rig payouts, experts say.
And to block would-be con artists, sweepstakes operators sometimes use illegal jamming devices, a topic that’s widely discussed online by players and game owners.
“I think what these operations have figured out is that people are cheating using their cell phones, and they do not want them using their cell phones in these sweepstakes halls,” Levitan said.
A search of the internet reveals scores of available jamming devices marketed specifically for fish game tables, ranging in price from about $1,000 to $3,000.
A visit to Lucky Day last week revealed at least three fish tables in operation.
When RockinghamNow asked if the business uses jamming equipment, the sole worker there said, “I can’t tell you what we’re using in here,” and shut her office door, declining to give her name or title, or to share the business owner’s name.
Further explaining how a jammer could handicap vehicles, Levitan said, “When you listen to the radio, you’re tuned in to a certain frequency. There are a couple thousand channels allocated to different things like cell phones and key fobs. Generally, these signals are very sensitive. These (jamming) devices create static so these radio waves are interrupted.”
Zapped, one car at a time
Jennifer W. Griffin of Eden said she has grappled with the car crippling issue four times since the fall after parking near Lucky Day.
El Parral is a Wednesday night dining tradition for Griffin, and on repeated visits she’s seen her key fob and car locks malfunction.
And whatever the disruptive signal is, it blitzed her entire family over the holidays, one car at a time, Griffin said.
Indeed, just before Christmas, Griffin’s mother Martha J. Wright had to resort to a towing service when she was unable to start her Cadillac in the El Parral lot.
Once ferried to the other side of El Parral and away from Lucky Day, Wright’s car cranked right up and resumed its normal electronic lock functions, Griffin said.
Subsequently, Griffin’s father had similar difficulty with his key fob and car locks in a third car, she said.
Restaurant staff told Griffin that at least one other patron had to abandon a car in the parking lot for several days because the car would not unlock or crank.
“I made a Facebook post about it, and I got 60 comments,” Griffin said of Eden area residents sharing similar problems.
The most troubling aspect of the problem is the potential risk it poses for elderly individuals and folks without resources, especially if a vehicle won’t start at night, Griffin said.
Bad for business
Customer comfort and safety are paramount to El Parral owner Arturo LLamaz, who celebrates his establishment’s 20th anniversary next month.
He says he’s fed up, worried that his customers will dine elsewhere to avoid the hassle, and hopeful police will find answers.
“This affects me a lot,” he said, noting that patrons share their car troubles with one another on social media.
“They (Lucky Day) come and open this business and I don’t know what’s going on. My customers have to go to the towing company and that costs a lot of money,” he said.
Restaurant manager Art Ayala agrees and says El Parral needs the parking spaces closest to Lucky Day to accommodate its crowds. “We don’t have enough space without it.”
Customer Ryan Thomasson of Eden said he will make sure to park away from Lucky Day in the future, after “I noticed a couple of times my key remote would not work,” he said.
“(Lucky Day is) doing something that needs to be stopped, Thomasson said.
Law enforcement agents have long said that such sweepstakes businesses attract crime because they deal in large cash payouts and are easy targets for robberies.
On Dec. 13, in fact, two armed men robbed a different Lucky Day sweepstakes location in Eden at 660 N. Pierce St., just .6 mile from the Van Buren parlor.
One of the suspects, Matthew Lamont Herbin, 42, of Reidsville, was taken into custody in Greensboro on Jan. 5 and charged with robbery with a dangerous weapon and kidnapping.
Still at large, Dave Lamech Ratliffe, 36, of Reidsville, faces a charge of robbery with a dangerous weapon.
It is unknown whether Lucky Day staff members there or at the Van Buren location have jammers on site or the ability to dial 911 from the businesses.
Calls to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation were not returned before press time, and FCC officials were unavailable due to federal closures.