Aiken, S.C. officials to crack down on illegal games

Police to enforce law starting today
Illegal gaming machines confiscated from First Stop Convenience Store on Tobacco Road in 2011 are held as evidence.

Starting Monday, the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division say they will begin enforcing the state’s gaming device statute.

Games, including “sweepstake, video poker or any other electronic game of chance that may have a payout in cash, vouchers, gift cards or merchandise,” have been ruled illegal, Capt. Troy Elwell wrote in an e-mail.

According to Elwell, the law has been pretty consistent, but the machines keep changing. Those changes allow some machines to skirt the law because they do not involve any cash changing hands. One newer game in particular, deeming itself “sweepstakes,” sends users to another screen where they can find discount vouchers or links to online merchandise.

Both new and old machines could recently be found in more than half of the county’s convenience stores, Elwell said. However, since the release of this new warning, most stores have disposed of the machines.

“It seems like everyone is cooperating,” he said.

Beginning Monday, if the Sheriff’s Office finds a machine in a store, deputies will confiscate it and take it to a magistrate judge who will rule if it is an illegal device. If so, authorities will confiscate and destroy it. The owner will face a $500 fine or up to one year in prison.

In Georgia, however, the law is not so clear.

“Some ambiguity in the law has made prosecution somewhat difficult,” said Mike Ayers, Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent in charge of the Augusta region. “Unless we can prove they are paying out cash.”

One new practice authorities are seeing in Richmond County is the use of “Internet cafes” as gaming centers, he said.

A store will market itself as an office supply business and fill it with computers hooked up to the Internet. When customers come in, they pay for the Internet. On the desktop will be an icon for online poker or other gambling game. At the end of the Internet session, the customers can take their credits to the counter for cash or other prizes.

Elwell said he had not heard of this development in Aiken.

Ayers said Richmond County has gaming devices all over the city, but public opinion on their danger is divided.

“We usually have about half the community behind it and half against,” he said.