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Murman: County should ban internet sweepstakes cafes

TAMPA - Patrons who buy time at internet sweepstakes cafés say they do it to escape boredom, make new friends and possibly win some money. But to Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, the cafés are illegal gambling joints that need to be prohibited. "There is no doubt in my mind these are slot machines," Murman said Tuesday. "They're insidious, they're addictive and once they pop up in a neighborhood, they really gain a foothold." Today, Murman will try to get fellow commissioners to support an ordinance to put them out of business altogether. The county sheriff's office cracked down on several internet sweepstakes businesses three years ago, but hasn't taken any action lately, citing the vagueness of state gambling law and a lack of citizen outrage.
The businesses work like this: Patrons pay $10 or $20 for a phone card that gives them an hour or more on computers. They play video games that look like slot machines. Other people are playing the game on the same server though they may be at other locations. The winner, who gets cash from $1 to $1,000, or points toward prizes, is determined by the computer server randomly. That's why owners say the games are a legal sweepstake, like getting a scratch-off card when you buy something at MacDonald's. "Is that any different than going to Home Depot or Lowe's and getting a sales receipt that says, 'You may be a winner; call this number?" asked Commission Chairman Al Higginbotham, who said he is undecided on the need for an ordinance. Ambiguity in state law governing slot machines has made it difficult for local governments to close the cafés. A Florida Attorney General advisory opinion in November 2007 said local law enforcement must make a determination whether the games violate the state statute "based on particular facts of the case." Some county sheriffs have moved aggressively against the cafés. Pasco County Sheriff's deputies shut down four in July after the owners ignored orders to close. The sheriff sent similar warnings to three or four other cafés, said spokesman Kevin Doll, but he didn't know if they were still operating. Pinellas County sent letters to four sweepstakes cafés, threatening to arrest the owners and managers and seize their equipment if they didn't close. Within two weeks, all four cafés shut down. Murman said the tough action taken by surrounding counties has driven the businesses into Hillsborough where about 25 are now operating.

msalinero@tampatrib.com (813) 259-8303

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