Inside a nondescript storefront on East Drive, the main drag of Arbutus, rows of computers line the walls.
One afternoon last week, this Patch editor walked in and paid $5 in cash for computer time. I played several hands of draw poker, and less than 15 minutes later, walked out $7.75 richer.
The business is described as an Internet café that sells computer time and offers customers a chance to win a sweepstakes drawing.
Kathryn Rowe, assistant attorney general for the state of Maryland, characterized it differently.
“It’s definitely gambling,” Rowe said. “It’s illegal.”
The Internet Sweepstakes parlor on East Drive, which opened in March and closed on April 27, was the latest place to crop up in the Baltimore area in recent months.
According to the Baltimore Sun, at least four sweepstakes parlors have opened in Baltimore City within the last year, and at least two in the county. Aside from the one in Arbutus, a sweepstakes parlor opened at Loch Raven Plaza on Goucher Boulevard in Towson, the Sun reported.
"I haven't received any citizen complaints," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger. "We react to what people complain about. Until somebody brings us a complaint, we won't take any action."
Baltimore County police said they have begun taking notice of the parlors.
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"It's something we're aware of," said police spokesperson Cathleen Batton. "We have to see what laws apply. We're waiting for legal opinions from the state's attorney."
On the surface, the parlors sell computer time. At the Arbutus parlor, one dollar buys five minutes of online access. If one chooses, a customer can use the time to check email or Facebook, peruse Huffington Post, or check the latest sports scores.
One click led to a menu of casino-like video games--64 different choices at the Arbutus parlor. Most of the games are variations of slots or keno, with a few types of poker available as well.
Customers can win additional computer time as well as credits that can be cashed out. Win or lose, each customer is supposedly entered into a sweepstakes contest, with the drawing scheduled far in the future. The drawing for the sweepstakes at the Arbutus parlor was scheduled for February of 2013.
Rowe said that despite how they are pitched, sweepstakes parlors are still operating illegally.
"A slot machine is still a slot machine, even if it's connected to the Internet," she said.
Sweepstakes parlors "are illegal, at least as they've been explained to me," she said. "I don't know first-hand; I've never been in one."
Some Arbutus residents have expressed uncertainty about a gambling parlor opening under the radar in a suburban neighborhood.
"My feelings as the president of the business association and my feelings as a property owner are quite different," said Patti Sue Nolan, president of the Arbutus Business and Professional Association.
"I'm not comfortable with it," said Capt. John Spiroff, commander of Precinct 1/Wilkens. "I don't like the sort of things that can come along with gambling."
Unlike state-sanctioned video slots and lotteries, sweepstakes parlors are unregulated. The devices are not monitored by state regulators to ensure that they are operating fairly, critics contend.
"There are now over 300 sweepstakes parlors, Internet parlors, that are in this state that are totally unregulated," Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine told newsnet5. "They're really a consumer rip-off."
Unlike casinos, where employees undergo a background check, the state doesn't even know who works at sweepstakes parlors, he said.
"We don't know if any of these individuals has a criminal background," DeWine said. "We don't know where that money is going. We don't know who the investors are, so that's a problem."
The Internet Sweepstakes parlor in Arbutus was owned by Steve and Jeff Moran, proprietors of .
Steve Moran said that they decided to close the parlor because of a new law taking effect July 1 that will make it illegal.
Rowe said sweepstakes parlors have been operating outside of the law all along, but that officials have been slow to take action.
"There's illegal gambling all over the state," she said. "It's a matter of resources. It usually takes a while for this kind of thing."