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D.A. shuts down ‘Internet cafes’

District Attorney Joe Mulholland announced he has notified five so-called Internet cafes in Bainbridge that they must shut down under Georgia law outlawing gambling.

Mulholland said he sent the five businesses letters to “cease and desist.”

The five businesses that were sent letters include Big Dawg Calling Cards, 1121 E. Shotwell St.; RFD Business Center, 913 E. Shotwell St.; one in the old K-Mart shopping center at 1615 E. Shotwell St.; and another in the shopping strip on Scott Street.

A fifth business that was offering Internet gaming closed for unrelated reasons before the letters were sent. The one in the old K-Mart shopping center closed down voluntarily earlier in the year; the remaining three closed about two weeks ago once the district attorney and Bainbridge police launched an official investigation into the practices.

According to the district attorney, customers at the so-called Internet cafes paid $20 for about 30 minutes of computer use. As a “courtesy,” the customers were given credits on a gaming website. Those credits could be redeemed for additional Internet browsing time, prizes or sometimes even cash payouts.

“The credits go up or down while you play a game,” Mulholland said. “You could be done in two minutes or rack up 4,000 minutes of Internet time, more than anyone could feasibly use at one time.”

Mulholland said he was willing to prosecute any of the businesses who didn’t shut down under existing law, which states that games which require money to play can only offer non-cash items or merchandise worth less than $5 as payouts.

“The problem was that these businesses were in fact giving cash payouts,” Mulholland said. “They tried to get around the law by saying they were just running a sweepstakes, however, the customer still had to pay money in order to play.”

Mulholland said is working with state legislators and other district attorneys to create a new law that would specifically address Internet gambling. One such attempt was made in the 2011 legislative session; the bill passed both the Georgia House and Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Nathan Deal.

“The governor said he vetoed the bill because he didn’t feel it was clear enough,” Mulholland said. “However, he indicated he was looking forward to continued work on creating a law that would address Internet cafes.”

Mulholland said there are already plans to draft a revised bill during the special August legislative session, with the expectation of formally submitting it for consideration next January.

Even in the absence of a law specifically addressing them, there are multiple legal and moral concerns about the Internet cafes, Mulholland said.

“The businesses kept a lot of cash on hand and had a lot of customers coming in at all times of the day,” he said. “You also have the concern that the sweepstakes they were running hurt the state’s legal lottery, and the games have the tendency to prey upon poor people.”