South Carolina Law Enforcement Division agents along with deputies from Richland and Lexington Counties seized 46 computers from Cafe 21 in Richland County Wednesday. They also took another 18 computers from a separate bust at an internet sweepstakes cafe off St. Andrews Road. They say both cafes were involved in illegal gambling.
The sting comes after several months of investigating; including sending undercover agents inside these internet sweepstakes cafes.
Authorities say they operate by selling long distance calling cards. Customers use the cards to log on to the cafe's computers to play games like poker, slots, and keno. They get cash payouts for winning.
Even though it is different from traditional video board machines, it is still illegal in South Carolina, according to Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.
"You are taking a chance on winning some money, but you have to start off by paying to get that chance. They say you are paying for the internet time, but it is still gambling."
Cafe 21 is owned by Norman Ferrell, 42, and managed by Misha Jenkins, 35. Both were given tickets. Customer Fran Washington, 37, was also cited.
Sheriff Lott said Ferrell and Jenkins lied about their business to get a license; and were given many warnings to shut down.
"You have to look at some of the business licenses that they get, how they deceived the agency. They say they will open under one reason getting a business license. Then something else goes in there."
Anita Lee, owner of Haircuts Plus, works in the same plaza as Cafe 21. She said it opened about six months ago, but she never noticed any suspicious activity.
"It was busy at times. Sometimes it was not. But it was not a problem to us. I had never heard of an internet cafe."
But Lott said these types of businesses are still popping up. WACH found another internet sweeps cafe a mile away from the Richland County Sherriff's Department. That store was closed. Lott said it can sometimes lead to criminal activity.
"The bad guys know that the people in there are paying cash. So there is a money source. They know the people going in and playing; maybe winning money too. So when they come back to their cars, they are looking at victims."
The three people issued tickets will appear in court. The department has identified more cafes in the county they believe are running these illegal games; and warns owners to close their doors before they do.