Sweeping the net
It's just after 10 a.m., and Angel Nicolodi has just opened her cyber café in Valrico. Fifty plush chairs sit empty in front of fifty computer consoles, waiting for customers to come in and try their luck at a variety of online sweepstakes games. It's early. By day's end, many of those chairs will be filled with sweepstakes seekers, looking for the easiest kind of cash. Sound like gambling? Well, it's not casino gambling, she said. It's more like the sweepstakes you might encounter at MacDonald's when you buy a Coke and get a game card. You're paying for the Coke, not the game card. That's free.It's the same principle here. You are buying computer time, not a raffle ticket or a pull on a slot machine. Because sweepstakes results are predetermined and not a game of chance, it's not gambling and is not restricted by the laws that govern casino gambling. That's how it's legal, she explained, though there have been and likely will be attempts by legislators to limit and even shutter sweepstakes cafes like this one. It's a burgeoning business. Nicolodi's Calypso Sun Cyber Café is one of eight owned by her family in Florida. The others are in the Jacksonville area. She said the business was launched nine years ago, and the Valrico location opened last September. "My grandfather opened all of them," the 27-year-old Lakeland mom recently said at the café, at 3130 State Road 60, just east of Valrico Road. "It's a family business." Players can spend $20 for a card that allows them to play about 25 sweepstakes games for about an hour, she said. Gamers swipe the cards at the computers to play. They can play one game the whole time or switch to other games offered by the dedicated server. Some look like video games, while others simulate slot-machine screens. If they get lucky, customers can collect winnings from the cashier at the front of the store. Some win. Some don't. Since opening in September, the café has had one lucky gamer who hit the $3,000 jackpot. A bulletin board by the front door lists winners, who cashed in on amounts ranging from a few bucks to hundreds of dollars. New customers are given a complimentary "no purchase necessary" card to try playing and see if they like it, Nicolodi said. Some first-timers ask if it's legal, she said, and she repeats the spiel, explaining why they won't get arrested if the place is raided. "We don't hide anything," she said. Occasionally, undercover law enforcement officers come in. She said she can spot them right away. They ask for a copy of the regulations and then play the games for a while. "I know them," she said. "We're not afraid of them. We are not doing anything illegal." There are regulars, and people who are just curious, she said. They come in after discovering the business on Facebook or after seeing it as they pass by or hearing of it by word of mouth, she said. Some people stop in after playing bingo games nearby, or after leaving the lounge next door. Some drop by after gambling at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, she said, "when they still are not ready to go home." Customers come from all walks of life, she said. "Some call this a senior arcade," she said. "But it's not just seniors, though our oldest customer is a 90-year-old woman who can work a computer as well as I can." Susan DeRosse, 51, of Valrico, has been to 14 different sweepstakes cafes around Tampa since she first discovered the places a few months ago. She sees it as a social club more than a place to win — or lose — money. "The first time I ever knew about these things was through the Calypso Sun," she said. "I'm a single mom, with a son in college. I don't go to nightclubs or bars; I'm not a drinker," she said. "I'm socially limited … to sitting at home and watching the four walls close in on me." Her first trip to a cyber café caught her. "I said, 'Wow, nobody's bothering me,' " she said. "I can spend $5 or $10 and enjoy myself." DeRosse has become friends with other customers, she said. "Most of the people I've met are empty nesters," she said, "or they are retired." And it's inexpensive. "You can go with $20 and spend two or three hours and just relax and enjoy yourself," she said. She thinks she's won more than she's lost. "I'm not doing it for sake of, 'I got to play, play, play to make money,' " she said. "My motivation is that I want to go out and have fun." While she's a big cyber café fan, she doesn't describe herself as a gambler and has been to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino only twice, she said, "once when it first opened and one other time about two months ago. That's not for me. It's too much going on. I got a lot of anxiety, seeing the way people are over there. It's almost a scary situation." In 2007, then-Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum said that while his office considers sweepstakes cafés to be in violation of state law, it is up to local law enforcement to decide whether the law is being broken. It's handled on a case-by-case basis. State Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, came up with a bill that would close legal loopholes that enable such cafés to operate, but it appeared to be stuck in committee this past legislative session. Newly elected Attorney General Pam Bondi has said she favors the bill. "This session, the Attorney General's Office supported Rep. Plakon's legislative proposal to remove any possible ambiguity over whether internet cafés constitute illegal gambling by closing the loopholes in current law that allow these cafés to operate," she said through her spokeswoman, Jennifer Krell Davis. Kelly Mathis is a Jacksonville lawyer who represents Internet sweepstakes cafés that have been challenged throughout North and Central Florida. He watched Tallahassee closely, monitoring the progress of Plakon's bill. He said a similar bill has been floated in the Senate, but that one hasn't gone far either. Neither bill was adopted by legislators in the session that ended Saturday. Sweepstakes laws, which have been on the books for 40 years, are strict, he said, but confusion arose when sweepstakes began popping up on computers. There never was an issue when people got their sweepstakes notices in the mail, he said. "Sweepstakes now have moved into the computer age, and most are being conducted on computers," he said. "And with the Internet, most businesses nationwide are using the power of the Internet for sweepstakes and marketing." Though the sweepstakes appear to be harmless fun, gambling addicts don't need another place to lose their money, addiction counselors say. The Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling said that in 2008 there were just a few sweepstakes cafés, but now, there are more than 600 in Florida.