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Internet sweepstakes cafes likely to sidestep the ban

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Just like in a casino, there are no clocks in Fish the Net Sweepstakes café, but you didn't need one to tell that time was running out.

With the sweepstakes game ban looming, a sign on the front door of the Durham establishment reads: "We are anticipating closing Dec. 1. We should be reopening in a few days to update the system. Any customer who wants to cash out should do so now."

Hopefuls faithfully clicked away on the computers, sharing stories of jackpots past and eyeing one more matching set of fruit on the final day that sweepstakes were allowed in North Carolina.

The state ban passed by the General Assembly this summer went into effect Dec. 1. No more Internet cafés selling time in dark rooms. No more charging customers for a telephone card they can use for slots-like gaming. No more transferring "credits" to cash. No more loopholes, lawmakers hope.

But there are already rumblings that creative café owners will find a way to circumvent the law, just as they did when the state began to regulate video poker in 2000. Back then, the law limited the number of machines per store to three and the payouts to $10 in merchandise. Then in 2006, legislators passed an outright ban. The industry then moved to sweepstakes, using Internet cards as a guise to enable gambling.

Last week, Internet Sweepstakes Software, the Charlotte-based, self-proclaimed "Largest Internet Sweepstakes Network in the world," issued a press release touting a 26-bundle package it calls the "NC Sweepstakes Ban solution."

Details were vague—the company only offered that "a simple change in the game technicalities will allow machines to remain where they are."

Calls to Internet Sweepstakes Software were not returned. An automated machine answers the company phone and funnels callers to voicemail.

Fish the Net booth attendant Stephen DeBerry says the business will switch to new games that will fall under the new state regulations, but he wasn't sure of specifics.

"I asked that question myself, 'What will be different?'" DeBerry says. "I just know that we are switching our gaming system and that everything will be back up and running."

Bruce Cunningham, a Fish the Net customer, opens a computer screen showing the new games. They aren't available yet, but the images appear similar to the current selection. "Coming soon ... Searing 7s, Fire and Ice, Dancing Diamonds."

Cunningham says he spends a few hundred dollars on weekends on sweepstakes and has racked up more than 80,000 hours of free Internet time. He runs monthly charter bus trips to Atlantic City, and says he might increase the number to twice a month if the ban closes the sweepstakes cafés in North Carolina.

"People are going to have to have somewhere to go," he says.

Roxanna Wilson, a Durham resident, is a regular at Fish the Net. She says she played almost every day, but recently had to cut back after she lost too much money. Still, she says, she comes back because of the free pizza and coffee, the raffles, the weekend dancing and the hope of the next rush of luck.

Wilson says she plans to return to her usual leather chair when Fish the Net reopens. "I know I'll be back," she says. "In a way, I wish it would close, I really do, because I'm losing a lot of money that I can't really afford, but I would miss coming down here."

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