(News-press.com) - Despite a crackdown by the Legislature and the closure of more than 1,000 Internet cafes across the state last year, the illegal gambling shops are continuing to pop up around Florida.
Last week the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Illegal Gaming Task Force arrested a Seminole County man on charges that he owned and operated more than 27 of the cafes in seven counties.
Those arrests stemmed from warrants issued by State Attorney Willie Meggs for the arrest of Ivan Vega for operating the cafes in Gadsden and Jefferson counties.
The closure of those cafes in mid-March led FDLE and Attorney General's office investigators to establishments operated by Vega across the state.
The cafes, which often operate under the guise of offering a place for people to check their emails and gain Internet access, were banned by the Legislature during last year's session.
Statewide prosecutor Nick Cox said since, the sites have started to tweak the game software and mode of operation, but are still in violation of laws, both old and new.
"They change it ever so slightly. Under the law it makes zero difference whether this is a slot machine or not," Cox said. "The people that say they changed it and it's now legal under the new law are flat out illegal."
Cox said owners like Vega have altered the games to include pre-reveal knowledge of whether a player will win, but that still doesn't preclude them from the law.
Meggs said the managers of the Big Bend cafes were the ones that led them to believe illegal gambling was occurring.
"We sent somebody in to gamble and we won," Meggs said. "They taught us how to gamble."
Meggs said his investigation started in Jefferson County and then spilled over into Gadsden. He said since, his office has continued to visit the sites, but they have remained closed.
The state attorney said it's challenging to keep ahead of those intent on violating the law.
"A crook will try to find a loophole around anything," Meggs said. "You can call it sweepstake, but it's still unlawful, it's still gambling and we have a statute that prohibits gambling."
The Legislature moved to ban the cafes quickly during the 2013 session when Allied Veterans, which was connected with several of the store-front parlors statewide, was accused of operating a $300-million illegal gambling ring that used a veteran's charity as a front. The first of almost 60 trials related to last year's indictments ended in February and were prosecuted by Cox.
FDLE agents continue to seek out and close cafes, all of which operate as illegal gaming centers, said Jim Madden, FDLE Assistant Commissioner.