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Pasco sheriff shutters four sweepstakes cafes

NEW PORT RICHEY - Pasco County sheriff's investigators shuttered four sweepstakes cafes today in an attempt to squelch their growing popularity. Deputies with the sheriff's vice and narcotics unit entered parlors in Hudson and Holiday and confiscated computers used to run sweepstakes games. Authorities said the games are nothing more than a front for unregulated gambling. "We investigated this because there are thousands of dollars of transactions each day," Sheriff Chris Nocco said. "With that much money involved, it creates an environment for organized crime and corruption and all that does is degrade our county." In sweepstakes cafes, patrons "cash in" by purchasing Internet time, getting 100 points for every dollar of time they purchase. The points are either put on a card or patrons are given a code to punch into the computers. They use the points to play computerized slot machines.
Some cafes use phone minutes instead of Internet time. Points are added or subtracted depending on the spin outcome. Patrons who finish with more points than they started with can exchange the difference for cash. Proponents of the cafes say they run a sweepstakes-type game rather than a game of chance; a difference they contend keeps their businesses legal. Pasco investigators said they sent cease-and-desist letters to seven of the county's eight known sweepstakes businesses over the past several weeks. The four shuttered today ignored the letters and continued operating, the sheriff's office said. They are: Blue Jay Sweepstakes, 8127 State Road 52, Hudson; The Internet Café, 11720 U.S. 19, Hudson; The Cove, 12124 U.S. 19, Hudson; and Achievers, 2533 U.S. 19, Holiday. No arrests were made, but Lt. Charles Balderstone said he anticipates there will be arrests as the investigation continues. He estimated investigators seized 200 computers from the four businesses. Balderstone said investigators contacted each parlor months ago and informed owners that the sheriff's office considered their activities illegal. When the businesses kept operating, they sent the cease-and-desist letters. "This is not about our position on gambling," Nocco said. "This is about unregulated gambling in our county." Balderstone said the cafes are often dimly lit rooms full of computers. At many, customers are given free food and non-alcoholic drinks. The ones in Pasco advertise themselves as selling Internet time. "There's nothing about these establishments that shows they exist to sell Internet time," Balderstone said. "I didn't see anyone Googling anything." Roughly 1,000 of the cafes have sprung up across the state, including 20 in Hillsborough County. The cafes have been challenged by law enforcement in Marion and Seminole counties, where cases have ended in acquittals, dismissals or are on appeal.

tleskanic@tampatrib.com (813) 731-8098
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