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Sweepstakes machines find way into town

The Review found them in five spots, so far

September 10th, 2019 1:37 PM

Sweepstakes machines have been quietly popping up in and around Forest Park.

By Maria Maxham

Video gambling machines, legal in Illinois Gaming Board (IGB) approved establishments holding liquor licenses in Illinois, were officially banned in Forest Park by resident vote on Nov. 6, 2018. But sweepstakes machines, not covered under this ban or regulated in any meaningful fashion, have been quietly popping up in and around Forest Park. 

The Review first reported on one in the Citgo gas station at 7323 Randolph in October 2018. Since then, more have appeared. In addition to the machines at the Citgo, there are three at the BP on Harlem, three at R Place on Harlem, two at the Beacon Pub, and three at Healy's West Side. 

There may be more, but since businesses do not require a license of any kind to install one, it's difficult for a town to keep track of how many exist. In Forest Park, establishments hosting sweepstakes machines – or any entertainment machines, for that matter – are supposed to purchase and display a village amusement sticker, but Forest Park Mayor Rory Hoskins said this rule is not always followed. 

For years, the Illinois Gaming Board has declared that sweepstakes machines are illegal. In their 2013 statement regarding the illegality of these machines, the agency stated that promoters of these devices exploit a "legal loophole" by "arguing that the purchase paid into the kiosks is for a coupon and not for the wagering credits." Also, since a user can play a limited number of games for free, gambling isn't necessitated, and the games provide an "alternate means of entry."

Sweepstakes machines look and function a lot like video gambling machines. At the machines in the BP on Harlem Avenue in Forest Park, users can play games for free at first if they provide their name, mailing address, and date of birth. If they want to continue playing after their free credits are used up, they can put money into the machine. The games simulate slot machines, featuring cherries, lemons, sevens, and gold bars. The player can press a button to "spin" and hope the game ends on a winning combination. Once finished, users can cash out, which allows them to print a receipt to bring to the cashier. At the BP on Harlem, the receipt can be redeemed for cash. 

Being able to play for free, claim sweepstakes machine manufacturers and distributors, is one of the key differences between their machines and legal gambling machines. However, the machines don't always work this way. In fact, at the Citgo on Randolph the sign above the machines reads: "TO ENTER WITHOUT PURCHASE… (a) ask the participating retailer for free daily entry, limited to one entry per day and usable only at the premises of that participation retailer." At this location, though, when the cashier was asked how to play, he said the user must put money into the machine to start. When asked about playing for free, he said the user can go online and print out a coupon but had no details on how to do that. He did not provide his name and declined an interview.

R Place and Healy's host Luxe Yard machines, which allow the player to redeem winnings for cash at the bar or coupons that can be used at the Luxe Yard Outlet website, where purchasable items range from Duck Dynasty water bottles to a couch selling for over $4,000.

Opponents of sweepstakes machines don't like the fact that they are not regulated as video gambling machines are. Businesses aren't required to have a license for them. And they're not taxed either. So sweepstakes machines profit only the gaming machine owner and the business hosting the machines. Therefore, for villages that allow legal gambling machines, which Forest Park does not, these sweepstakes machines can operate without any benefit to the village or state, taking away a viable revenue stream for these towns. According to a WBEZ investigation last year, legal gambling brought in more than $1.2 billion to the state of Illinois by the end of June 2018.

Another regulation that applies to legal gambling machines and not sweepstakes machines is that the legal machines are only allowed in establishments that already have a liquor license. Sweepstakes machines, however, can be placed anywhere. In fact, on the website of a local sweepstakes machine manufacturer and distributor, Jackpot Gaming, the company makes it clear that these machines are not bound by the same laws as the IGB sanctioned machines. "Electronic promotion kiosks have no restrictions at all," reads the web page and lists the types of locations they can be placed, including liquor stores, bars, laundromats and convenient [sic] stores. In all caps it then states, "NO LIQUOR LICENSE REQUIRED!" 

Other regulations that apply to legal gambling machines that do not apply to sweepstakes machines are a limit to the number of machines an establishment can have, whether or not a background check is needed to install a machine in a business, and whether or not the machine is required to actually allow players to win. None of these regulations are in place for sweepstakes machines.

Last Thursday, Hoskins had the police inspect machines he was aware of to see if they all had the village amusement sticker. About the issue of the machines in town, he said that village attorneys "are looking into it."

Several Chicago area townships and villages have banned these machines, including Oak Park, Skokie, Mount Prospect, Mundelein and Huntley.