Raleigh sweepstakes parlor refuses to pay 'winners'

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comJanuary 16, 2014 

— It was an Internet sweepstakes parlor player’s holiday dream come true: Two Raleigh women won thousands of dollars at a cafe south of downtown on Christmas morning.

That dream vanished quickly, though, when the parlor owners decided not to pay up. Now all the people involved say they were victims of a scam.

It was a few hours before dawn on Christmas morning when Deborah Elaine Davis, a seamstress, and Lakesha Mewborn, who works as a caretaker for the elderly, walked into VS2-Front Edge Sweepstakes on South Saunders Street. The women paid $20 each to sit in front of a game terminal, hoping to win some extra holiday cash.

Mewborn, 37, had played every day at the Internet parlor since it opened in August. The most she had ever won was $100.

Davis, 58, plays nearly every day. The most she had ever won was $1,000 from the Internet cafe next door.

VS2-Front Edge Sweepstakes is open 24 hours a day in single-story strip of offices and retail businesses. Its drab exterior gives way to an interior with avocado-colored walls, a flat-screen television and computer terminals where patrons sit in front of colorful screens and play.

It appeared some sort of holiday angel was playing on behalf of Davis and Mewborn that cool, wet Christmas morn. Davis used 52 cents of the $25 worth of terminal time she purchased and won more than $50,000. Mewborn used 25 cents of her $25 to win $103,000.

Davis and Mewborn weren’t the only ones winning the big bucks that morning. Mewborn’s boyfriend won $80,000. Another fellow in the parlor’s no smoking room quietly won a modest pot of cash, too: $1,600.

“I knew one day, my day would come,” Mewborn said this week. “My day had finally come.”

The owners of the cafe didn’t think so. They suspected someone had hacked into the computer system and caused it to malfunction.

A meager payout

Jerry Michael Wilder of Longs, S.C., and Jimmy Olsen Bridges Jr. of Raleigh met with the four winners on Dec. 26 and gave them $1,000 apiece. A manager said this week that police have since been notified and given a copy of the business’s surveillance video.

Bridges, 67, said he didn’t know whether a police report had been filed. Then he hung up the phone without further comment.

Attempts to reach Wilder, 64, for comment were unsuccessful.

Chase Brooks, a sweepstakes operator in Alamance County who supplies the gaming machine software used at VS2-Front Edge, also refused to comment.

The manager, who would not give her name, said the business reneged on the payouts because someone – possibly one or more of the winners – had hacked into the cafe’s computer system. She said the cash winnings that totaled over $200,000 had never happened before in the history of sweepstakes parlors.

Very gray area in law

It’s not clear what recourse VS2-Front Edge, Davis and Mewborn have in this dispute, considering that the state doesn’t recognize sweepstakes parlors as legal businesses. Though VS2-Front Edge is registered with the Secretary of State, sweepstakes parlors are illegal in North Carolina. Last week, a Wake County grand jury indicted three people affiliated with sweepstakes parlors in Raleigh on gambling charges.

VS2-Front Edge shut down last spring after the state Supreme Court upheld the state’s ban on sweepstakes parlors. But the industry has argued that changes in the software used by the sweepstakes machines makes them legal again under state law, a position disputed by Attorney General Roy Cooper and other law enforcement officials. VS2-Front Edge reopened in August.

Davis and Mewborn say they intend to file a civil lawsuit against the parlor.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said that he had not heard about the case.

“My general response is that anyone who thinks that a crime has been committed should contact the police,” Willoughby said. “Whether it’s the sweepstakes owners or the people playing the games. It could be a civil dispute.”

Willoughby said he did not know how the courts would proceed with a case that involves a business that has been declared illegal by state statutes.

“What do you do if you find out somebody is cheating in a poker game?” he asked. “It all sounds suspicious to me. Were the owners the victims of a crime or are they just refusing to pay up?”

Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue said he could not find a criminal complaint from anyone affiliated with the Internet cafe.

Mewborn and Davis howled at suggestions that they had hacked the cafe’s computer system.

“They asked if I had any computer training. I told them, no,” Mewborn said. “I know how to send an email. Who don’t? I know how to get on Facebook. Who don’t? I had an introduction to computer technology in college, and I made a D. I barely passed.”

‘They were cheering’

Davis arrived at the sweepstakes cafe just before 12:30 a.m. on Christmas morning. She went to the front desk and paid $20 to get into an account she had started with the cafe. She gave the front desk employee her driver’s license number and her password. “Bitty123.”

Davis, who also works as a hairdresser and housekeeper part time, decided to play the “Betting Bugs” game because she likes the butterfly display on the game screen, along with ants and beetles. She put up 27 cents to play and clicked. The game screen went into a roulette wheel-type spin. When it stopped, four beetles were showing on the screen.

Davis clicked and the four beetles came up again. And again. And again. And again. She won $200, then $400, $600, $900.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is going on here?” Davis said.

Mewborn had been at the Internet cafe since midnight. She discovered she had the Midas click while playing “Fruit -n-Toot.”

“We were winning so much the attendants came back there to watch,” she said. “They were cheering and taking pictures with us.”

The cafe attendants did not have the cash on hand for such a big payout. So they gave them $1,000 each and told them to come back later that day to collect the rest of their winnings.

That meeting was delayed until the day after Christmas, when the owners told them someone had hacked into the gaming system. The owners told the winners they could keep the $1,000, but they weren’t getting another dime.

The mystery man

The manager on duty at the cafe this week made available the establishment’s official rules, including a paragraph in capital letters stating that any attempt to “deliberately undermine the legitimate operation of this Sweepstakes may be a violation of criminal and civil laws.”

The four-page document is taped on the window of the front desk where patrons must sign in before playing the games. The manager also pointed out that all players are required to read the rules electronically before playing the games.

But the owners or the manager have not said how they determined hackers were responsible for the games’ unusual behavior. There are websites that claim to offer devices capable of hacking gaming machines. The devices sell for about $250.

Davis thinks she knows who may be responsible for the hacked system: the quiet guy who slipped away with $1,600.

“He said to me, ‘I got them.’ He had a floppy disk in his hand. I asked him, ‘Why did you bring that in?’ He said, ‘I got the whole thing,’ ” she said. “When I asked him for his name and number, he stopped talking and told me I didn’t need to know his name and number.”

Davis called the device a floppy disk, but what she described sounded more like a flash drive. "It looked like a Bluetooth," she said. "Except it was bigger."

News researcher Peggy Neal contributed to this report.

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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