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Ohio Internet Cafes Due For More Regulation?

After hearing complaints for years, state lawmakers are cracking down on so-called Internet cafes which critics say are nothing more than electronic casinos. WOSU went inside the cafes for a firsthand look. By now, you’ve likely heard of the Internet cafes that have popped up all over Columbus and around the state. If not, that phrase – Internet cafe – may conjure up images of a mid-‘90s coffee shop where people pay by the minute to "dial up" the World Wide Web to hear the phrase "you’ve got mail." But most of today’s Internet cafes, in local strip malls, are no ‘90s throwbacks. "It’s the only form of gambling in the state of Ohio today that is out in the open that is not regulated," Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said. Proponents of Internet cafes say customers are not gambling. They say customers buy time on the phone card for the Internet and they’re entered to win a sweepstakes prize. Many of these Internet cafes are registered with the Secretary of State’s office. And many times their official business purpose is to sell phone cards. To get an idea how these places work, we went the Players Club in a strip mall off of Cleveland Avenue. A bingo game was being played when we arrived. A worker asked for our driver license. And we gave her the $20 minimum for a phone card with our name on it. The phone card was slid through a machine at our computer terminal to keep track of what the worker said were our sweepstakes points. Then she explained how the games worked; how we could play multiple lines. The displays looked similar to casino slot machines. The worker said, "playing low doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win either." The clerk at the Internet cafe never mentioned how to get on the Internet. And we were told any sweepstakes points could be cashed in when we were done playing. We ended up using $12 of the $20 on the phone card, and the clerk gave us $8 in cash. We tracked down the owner of the cafe. Ghzawan Brikho owns at least seven such cafes registered with the Secretary of State including Player Club Internet #2 on Alum Creek Drive. Brikho has a criminal record. In 2009, he was charged with operating a gambling house in Montgomery County. Court records indicate he forfeited half of the cash and property and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. When asked if his cafes host illegal gambling, Brikho said pending legal issues prevent him from talking about it. We tried to find the owners of other Internet cafes around town, but we couldn’t. That’s because the law does not require the actual business owner to be listed on registration forms filed with the secretary of state’s office. Most of the time an attorney registers the business. Attorney General DeWine said he wants to know who runs the cafes. "We have no idea who the owners are of these Internet cafes. We have no idea if they have a criminal background check, record, we don’t know what their records are. And it’s just a huge, huge problem. It’s literally the wild, wild west.â€? A new state law requires Internet cafe owners register with the AG’s office, and the forms ask for the true owners name. As for new cafes opening, there won’t be any - at least for now. The new law puts a moratorium on new cafes. But the law stops short of actually monitoring the machines to ensure they are fair. Over on Alum Creek Drive, a large colorful sign promotes free pizza at Player’s Club Internet Cafe #2. There’s an ATM inside. Rhonda Duvall said she has played there about 50 times. And she said she won, "Maybe about $5,000. [Five-thousand dollars? That sounds like a pretty good payout. How much have you spent to win $5,000?] Probably close to that." Duvall complained the machines don’t “hitâ€? as much as they did when the cafe first opened more than two years ago. Columbus City Councilman Zach Klein said because of the lack of regulation the fairness of the games cannot be assured. "You can go in and there may be machines that do pay out. But you very well could be going into a business or into a parlor where no machine pays out, it’s simply a front for money and money laundering for, potential money laundering for the people that own it. And there’s no way of ever winning," Klein said. The Columbus City Attorney’s office and Columbus Police work together to crack down on Internet Cafes. Assistant City Attorney Steven Dunbar said they go through environmental court and use nuisance laws to build a case. "If we find places that are blatantly violating gambling laws, then we’re going to try to shut those places down," he said. And DeWine said more needs to be done at the statehouse. "We need to get at it. We need to figure it out. And the only way we can effectively do that is through legislation by the General Assembly. So the ball really is in the General Assembly court at this point."