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Gambling-like Sweepstakes Games at Internet Cafes Create Enforcement Dilemma

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Internet cafes that offer sweepstakes games are gaining in popularity locally and nationally, moving the debate about whether they amount to online casino software style gaming or are certain businesses luring clients with promotions.


Although state gaming leaders consider the sweepstakes games illegal, they have left implementation decisions to local governments. While many cities appear to disregard them, others are becoming more proactive in cracking down.

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Antioch is the latest city to join with managing the businesses, recently placing a halt on new internet cafes to stop one of its three cyber-based enterprises from opening and adding rules on how the internet cafes operate. City officials have expressed interest that the businesses are magnets for criminal activity, extending from panhandling to assaults.


Oakland went to shut down two Internet cafes in October 2010 after receiving objections from nearby businesses and residents. As city officials held their course of action after learning they violated state law, the partners voluntarily closed the shops, said Alex Katz, executive manager for the city attorney’s office.


The sweepstakes games provide patrons to insert an electronic card or pin code into a network that gives them a definite number of opportunities to win, depending on how much Internet or phone card time is obtained.


While the colorful screen graphics resemble online casino slot machines, supporters say the increases are no different from the favorite Monopoly game long a fixture at McDonald’s.


“It’s meant to feel like gambling. We are trying to make it look like a duck and quack like a duck, but not be a duck,” said James Mecham, a specialist with Sacramento-based SweepsCoach, which helps people open gaming internet cafes nationwide.


“When you play at an online video slot machine, you pay to play. When you come into an Internet cafe, you are buying Internet time, just like you are buying a cheeseburger at McDonald’s,” Mecham said.


But the state is not buying that reasoning.


“They are flat-out unconstitutional. There is no gray area,” stated Shane Redmond, the Division of Gambling Control’s exclusive agent supervisor.


Redmond says playing a game at the internet cafe is a criminal offense in the state’s penal code because it includes using a gaming device with the possibility of winning or losing money.


Particular games can vary between internet cafes. At Antioch’s The Internet Room, gamblers click a “reveal” button that displays five parts on the screen. Players can show the questions one at a time or all at once to see whether they have won. The game lets a person choose how many sweepstakes games chances they want to play in a given round.


On a recent afternoon, the vast preponderance of patrons at The Internet Cafe Room and another internet cafe in the town were observed playing sweepstakes games.


Antioch police Chief Allan Cantando said he’d observed the same point in his visits to the cafes.


“I compare it to people who say they are going to a bar to have water, but most go in there to buy a drink,” Cantando said.


He related calls police receive from areas around the internet cafes are comparable to those connected with bars or nightclubs.


Antioch noted a 65 percent improvement in police calls to a strip mall on A Street during a seven-month time in 2010 when T’s Internet Cafe moved there. Calls fell to the previous level the year after the internet cafe closed.


Patricia Simmons, the owner of two Antioch the internet cafes including T’s, thinks that city officials checking out her cafe have involved free online casino software games with the sweepstakes games.


Some cities are forcing the internet cafes to close by citing local laws or requiring use permits, Redmond said.


Local governments in Florida, Utah, Ohio and North Carolina are also sorting through the legal arguments regarding the internet cafes, including companies about fraud. The Florida Legislature is contemplating regulating or banning the internet cafes.


Though more popular in other sections of the state, including the Sacramento suburbs, Internet cafes with sweepstakes games promotions can be found in Concord, Pittsburg, Pleasant Hill, San Leandro, San Lorenzo, and San Francisco, announced Simmons.


“It’s common throughout the state. They will find space in a little strip mall and, before you know it, they are up and running,” Redmond said.


Simmons says she was struggling to draw clients before she started offering the sweepstakes games.


“We are merely running a small, successful business using development to make it more attractive,” Simmons said. “I believe a lot of people have interests because they don’t like the ‘riff-raff.’ “


During a new visit to Cot on the Web in Antioch, many people using the computers for both sweepstakes games and the Internet cafe identified themselves as homeless, recovering drug users or inadequate to afford a computer.


Cot on the Web regular Becky Carter states she goes to the internet cafe not only to play the sweepstakes games but for the friendship.


“It’s kind of like Cheers. We all pretty much feel secure here,” Carter said.


The Division of Gambling Control essentially regulates card rooms and Indian online casinos but will point cities in the right direction and hardly assist with enforcement issues for Internet cafes, Redmond announced.


Some counties or cities dealing with budget difficulties choose not to put support toward implementation of the internet cafes, Redmond said.


Tina Wehrmeister, Antioch’s community improvement director, says the city does not have the resources to “fight that fight.”


Instead, the city and internet cafe owners worked to set commands that include keeping windows opened and adding monitoring cameras, security guards and an indoor waiting area. Antioch’s the Internet cafes will also have to conclude at midnight on weekends and 11 p.m. on weeknights.

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