“It’s like it always is, they left a big loophole,” Capt. Richard Lowe of the Mount Airy Police Department said of North Carolina lawmakers’ efforts during the summer which led to approving the supposed ban.
However, rather than bring the end of Internet cafes from Manteo to Murphy, the new legislation simply has written a new chapter to an ongoing debate surrounding gambling-related activities which has included video poker as well as sweepstakes businesses.
Businesses across the state have managed to remain open through software updates allowing them to meet the terms of the new law. In some cases, Internet cafes were out of commission for as little as one hour so the upgrades could occur.
Those changes have eliminated any sweepstakes games involving cards, or those resembling video poker, with machines now functioning much like arcade games. Members of the General Assembly wrote the sweepstakes ban so that it would outlaw video poker and slot machines, but continue to permit marketing sweepstakes such as scratch-off games offered at fast-food restaurants or grocery story contests.
Capt. Lowe of the Mount Airy police says the fact businesses are able to take advantage of this legal loophole greatly inhibits enforcement efforts by city law enforcement officers. “They’ve just got to take the guidelines that were set forth by the Legislature and try to ensure compliance with them,” he said.
Although some Internet cafes in Mount Airy voluntarily closed down this year in anticipation of the statewide crackdown and stiff new fees imposed by city government leaders, about four or five of them still exist in the city limits, Lowe said.
Despite the crackdowns on card- or poker-related games, sweepstakes parlors still operate in the same way. Customers buy time when they arrive which can then be used to play a wide selection of online games offering chances for cash and prizes — or the opportunity to lose what they’ve paid.
Lowe said Mount Airy officers have not issued any violations or raided any businesses, but will be quick to respond “if we have complaints, or if any officer were to see something that don’t look right” concerning Internet cafes.
“We will definitely monitor it and handle any complaints that we get if they’re not complying,” Lowe said, adding that city police have received “no complaints that I’m aware of.”
In the past, Mount Airy officers have relayed reports of people losing their entire paychecks at cafes, according to previous news coverage.
Lowe said the fact cafes continue to operate in Mount Airy shows there is money to be made with them, since new city regulations require each to pay a $2,500 charge every year to operate. In addition, parlors must pay an annual privilege-license tax of $500 for each electronic gaming machine used or stored as part of their operations.
The city police spokesman pointed out that it is confusing to officers and misleading to citizens when politicians take on such a cause as cracking down on Internet gambling, which in this case made everyone think the businesses would be outlawed. Then the resulting legislation was not specific enough to close loopholes.
The N.C. Attorney General’s Office is said to be pondering its next step regarding the latest turn with Internet sweepstakes operations.
“I don’t know what will happen,” Lowe said regarding any additional attempts at regulation in the future.
An employee of one local cafe, the Internet Hut on U.S. 52-North, has said such businesses are harmless compared to others, including bars, and are no worse than the state-run lottery.
Virginia localities also have been implementing new regulations to deal with an influx of Internet cafes, which coincided with the expected ban in North Carolina. Authorities in the Danville area raided three such businesses earlier this month, seizing machines and money.
Contact Tom Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 719-1924.