Senate moves to ban ‘sweepstakes’ games

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Staff Writer

Tavanda Eaves says she will be out of work if the N.C. General Assembly tightens a legal loophole and effectively banishes electronic sweepstakes games from the state.
The state Senate was expected to OK the ban Monday night. It was unclear when the ban would take effect.
Asked about the potential impacts of the loophole-tightening initiative, Internet café employee Eaves said, “A lot of us will lose our jobs, for one,” suggesting the business would shut down.
Eaves, a full-time employee of Pamlico Internet Access &Sweepstakes in Washington, said the business isn’t centered entirely on online sweepstakes games, which are played on computers wired for the Internet.
She said lots of students use the café’s paid-Internet-access terminals to take online classes or do homework.
A lot of older people use the computers to play games or surf the Web for information on healthy foods, Eaves asserted.
“Some of them don’t even know how to use a computer,” she said, adding that the staff helps customers who need a little instruction.
“They just enjoy surfing the Internet,” she said.
On Monday afternoon, around nine people had bought time on some of Pamlico Internet’s approximately 26 computers.
One of the customers was playing an online racing game, but the rest appeared to be playing slot-machine-type games over the Web.
Proponents of the legislation say the General Assembly already has outlawed video poker on separate occasions, most recently in 2006.
“It seems that every time a ban is passed, the video gaming industry finds a way around it,” said Schorr Johnson, spokesman for Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare.
“These sweepstakes games are the latest incarnation of getting around the law,” Johnson said.
Previous legislation banned video-poker games by outlawing the machines on which those games were played, he related.
The current legislation is intended to “close the loophole that is allowing these sweepstakes cafés to operate,” he said.
According to Johnson, the loophole exists because operators of Internet-sweepstakes cafés are allowing people to play online games that amount to gambling.
“All you need is a few computers and, all of a sudden, you’ve got a casino in Washington,” he said.
Some of these outfits masquerade as “business and copy centers, but they’re operating as casinos, which are illegal in North Carolina,” except on Indian reservations, Johnson added.
Johnson said some people have lost their life savings playing online sweepstakes games.
He said the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association “strongly endorsed” the loophole-closing move because of a reported increase in crime related to some of these businesses.
According to a weekly legislative report from the association, “Enforcement of the current law that bans Internet sweepstakes gambling has been suspended due to a court order issued by a superior court judge. In an effort to make it crystal clear that the North Carolina General Assembly intends to outlaw any form of video poker type gambling, the Senate Judiciary I Committee overwhelmingly approved this bill (last) Thursday to make the current law even clearer that these types of gambling machines are illegal.”
In addition to Pamlico Internet Access, located a couple of doors down from Wal-Mart off Carolina Avenue, Washington is home to EZ Access Sweepstakes, which is in a shopping center off 15th Street.
Stacy Bell, an employee of EZ Access, said the legislation that was headed for the Senate was “unfair.”
“Look at these people,” Bell said, indicating the seven customers stationed around some of the businesses’s 25 computers Monday afternoon. “They have nothing else to do. It’s their free choice.”
McDonald’s can hold contests, she pointed out, as a handful of customers played online sweepstakes games.
“It’s not just taking away people’s fun and enjoyment, but it’s taking away my job,” she said.
Like Eaves, Bell said many café customers use the on-site computers to do school work.
Cory Bryant, a customer of EZ Access, lamented news of the legislation Monday.
“That’s the only thing keeping us active,” Bryant said, soon acknowledging that jobs are scarce in the area.
Those who do not own home computers or hand-held devices and use the cafés for Internet access needn’t despair.
Three local libraries — Brown, BHM Regional and Beaufort County Community College — offer free Internet access to their patrons with certain stipulations.
For instance, BCCC library staff reports that only a free library card is needed to obtain access to the Internet through the library, which is open to students and the general public.
Copies cost 10 cents per page, and replacement library cards cost $1 at BCCC.