What are the odds?

Bills target online gambling operations
Is it an online gambling operation or a cyber-café?

That’s the question surrounding the Internet Shoppees in Amelia Bottom and the Village Square Shopping Center. Law enforcement officials have raided similar businesses in Roanoke, Virginia Beach, Pittsylvania County and Farmville, and state legislators are considering whether to explicitly outlaw such operations.

In October, Amelia’s first Internet Shoppee opened in Amelia Bottom. The proprietor, Raj Patel, took out an ad in The Amelia Monitor (Oct. 21) that said, “$1000 Cash Give Away – Sweepstakes – Play ‘Pot O Gold’!” Under the word “sweepstakes” was a graphic reminiscent of a triple-seven winning slot machine display.

However, the Internet Shoppee room itself contains no scantily-clad cocktail waitresses, no liquor of any kind, and no one-armed bandits – just a lot of computers. The ad said customers could “Mingle, Relax, Copy, Print, Fax”; a box contained a “coupon” for “$10 Internet Time 1000 points on us!!” The establishment was described in the ad and on its sign as “a Business Center.”

This month, another outlet, also called the Internet Shoppee (Patel’s spelling), opened in the Village Square Shopping Center. At the invitation of a store employee who requested anonymity, a Monitor reporter visited the business to see what it was all about.

So which is it? Gambling? Or an Internet café?

It’s still not clear, and the business’ mode of operation seems deliberately designed to encourage ambiguity.

This reporter paid $5; presented her driver’s license (no one under 21 is permitted on the premises); then logged in as instructed by the store employee. The $5 seems to have bought 600 points and 25 minutes of Internet time.

It took perhaps seven minutes to play a slot-machine-like “game” that used up all the points, during which time the amount of Internet time on the account did not seem to decrease. The “game” used up all the points but “paid” $9, which could either be used to buy more points or be redeemed for cash.

However, before a customer can play any game or access the Internet, the computer shows three screens of disclaimers and rules. The gist seems to be:

By buying “points,” the customer is actually entering a sweepstakes unconnected to the “games” onscreen.

No purchase is required to play the sweepstakes; anyone wanting to enter can write to a North Carolina address for a free entry.

Anyone can receive one free entry every 24 hours simply by requesting one at the shop.

The number of “games” you play does not affect your chances of winning the sweepstakes.

Customers do not have to play games; indeed, for as little as $1, they can access the Internet. This reporter clicked on the appropriate icon and got a Google screen. One customer in the shop was doing schoolwork on the Internet when this reporter visited, and the employee said other customers also came in to get high-speed Internet service.

Internet service “is one of the things you drop when you’re trying to save money, like cable,” the employee said. “This way, a person can come here and not have to spend a lot of money to get on the Internet.”

But is it legal?

Patel furnished The Monitor with copies of a July 30 letter from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to Del. Bill Janis (R-Glen Allen). Attorney General Cuccinelli found that no gambling was taking place at a similar business in July.

“It is my opinion that the element of consideration is missing, and therefore no illegal gambling occurs, when the opportunity to win a prize is offered both with a purchase and without the requirement of a purchase,” the attorney general’s letter stated.

Patel also gave The Monitor a copy of an Aug. 16 letter from C. Phillips Ferguson, the commonwealth’s attorney in Suffolk, to “Dear Sir or Madam.” Ferguson stated that he would “concur that Internet Café Sweepstakes Systems do not constitute illegal gambling under current state law.”

While such operations may be legal now, they might not be for long.

Seven bills before the General Assembly seem expressly aimed at the Internet café sweepstakes phenomenon. One of them – House Bill 2224 – is being sponsored by Del. Tommy Wright, who represents the 61st House District, which includes Amelia County. Attorney General Cuccinelli has announced his support for two pieces of legislation identical to Del. Wright’s bill.

“I was asked by some people in my district to introduce this legislation,” Del. Wright said. “Last year in the Shenandoah Valley, there was a problem, and we passed legislation with unintended consequences. This year we’re trying to amend the definitions to close the loophole.”

The Monitor contacted Patel earlier this month to arrange for the sort of “new business” story often seen on page 11 of the paper under the heading, “Our Neighbors.”

Patel responded that he and “the company” had done all of the marketing they intended to do. He asserted that the Internet Shoppee is a legal business and pointed to similar businesses in Blackstone, Farmville and Richmond.

* * *

Seven bills filed this session seemed aimed at Internet gambling operations. They are:
House Bill 1584, by Del. Glenn Oder (R-Newport News)
HB 1700, by Del. Clifford Athey (R-Front Royal)
HB 1863, by Del. John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake)
HB 2119, by Del. Ronald Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach)
HB 2224, by Del. Tommy Wright (R-Victoria)
Senate Bill 1164, by Sen. W. Roscoe Reynolds (D-Martinsville)
SB 1195, by Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg)
Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has announced his support for HB 1700 and SB 1195. All of the bills currently are in committee.
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