Pennsylvania Attorney General Resumes Enforcement Against Unlicensed Gambling Machines

Written By Kevin Shelly on August 10, 2021
Unlicensed gambling machines in PA.

Despite many crimes, including murder, targeting unlicensed and unregulated gambling machine locations in Pennsylvania, authorities have largely ignored the consequences of allowing the proliferation of the machines.

And state Senate hearings, where a state cop and a licensed and legal game distributor pleaded for more legislative support from authorities, ended with just talk – no action.

Also, the state has done nothing to keep underage children away from the machines.

State Police say no recent enforcement actions against unlicensed

This week, a Pennsylvania State Police spokesperson told PlayPennsylvania that he is not aware of any enforcement actions by his agency in the past two months. The state police are the primary enforcement agency against unlicensed machines in Pennsylvania.

But maybe the lack of enforcement is changing.

PA Attorney General’s statement on unregulated machines

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro‘s office exclusively told PlayPennsylvania it now has pending seizure cases underway.

The AG’s statement reads:

“Many of these machines are illegal and business owners should think twice before engaging in criminal behavior by putting them into their establishments. The PA Office of Attorney General supports new steps in the General Assembly and additional enforcement by all levels of law enforcement to stop the proliferation of these illegal machines across Pennsylvania. Our office alone currently has over a dozen cases where we are proceeding in forfeiting seized machines.”

That’s a sharp contrast to a year ago. Shapiro had then commanded his office to stop enforcement until the legislature or courts clarify the status of the machines. Neither the lawmakers nor the courts have since acted.

In May 2021 during a PA Senate hearing, a licensed video gaming terminal executive, laid the blame for the widespread appearance of the machines on Shapiro’s moratorium policy.

Crimes related to unlicensed machines in Commonwealth

Here is a partial list of documented crimes related to the unlicensed, unregulated, and untaxed machines:

  • Dec. 12: A store clerk in Hazelton was assassinated to facilitate stealing $14,000 from behind the counter of the convenience store he worked in where an illegal video poker machine operated. The alleged shooter awaits trial.
  • Feb. 12: A group including a PA state trooper assigned to a casino detail at Pocono Downs Casino faces charges of operating illegal machines, money laundering, and offering prostitution at his Sinners Swing Gentlemen’s Club. Adjudication is pending.
  • May 8: A man tries to break into a machine he was playing in Philadelphia. When that failed, he demanded a hammer, assaulted a clerk, and wheeled the machine out of the store, videotape aired on 6ABC shows.
  • June 4: Four men in the tiny town of Shenandoah, including a school official, face charges of openly operating illegal wagering operations. But the investigation extends back to Jan. 17, 2020, and remains unresolved in court.
  • July 26: A man broke into an American Legion in Scranton, according to 16ABC, and busted into a machine and stole $700. He also took another $100 from the bar.
  • Aug. 7: Two gas stations in Northeast Philadelphia with machines were hit for around $4,000. A 6ABC story about the robberies also mentions additional thefts from machines, but with limited details and no precise dates.

Unlicensed machines “magnets for crime”

While there’s been a string of crimes involving the machines reported, authorities believe many more crimes are not reported because the machines are operating in what is, at best, a grey area.

A spokesman for a coalition of casinos opposed to the spread of the unregulated machines, Pete Shelly, told PlayPennsylvania on Monday:

“So-called skills games are magnets for crime, plain and simple. We have seen reports like these across the state and we’re going to see more and more of them until we have a broad-based crackdown on these illegal slot machines. These crimes and the reports and pictures of children gambling should make it crystal clear that these machines have got to go.”

Finding unlicensed machines easy

It isn’t as if law enforcement should have much trouble locating the gambling machines operating. They are all over social media touting their exact locations and often offering promotional incentives.

One online listing example:

New PA Skills machine Danville PA. Free drinks for players. Smoke and vape shop. Friendly staff!. Bonus…they have bathrooms. Hours…9am to 10p Sun thru Thurs…till 11 p Fri and Sat.

An address follows the post for the gambling parlor. The location is just 33 miles from the Mohegan Sun Casino and its 1,728 licensed and heavily taxed slot machines.

Lots of online chatter about the unlicensed machines

In late July, a Harrisburg woman posted the following message on a social media group dedicated to the illicit gambling machines:

Do me a favor…STOP BRINGING YOUR BABIES with you to play the game or don’t play when they are with you!!

Casinos, of course, do not allow anyone under the age of 21 on the gaming floor.

The Facebook post drew hundreds of comments from sarcastic to serious on the members-only site.

Criticism of the illegal machine culture exposing children to gambling

A sampling siding with the original post about players bringing children:

  • I’ve seen people actually sit their little ones on a stool and teach them / let them play for them.
  • There is a guy around us who gets his child on weekends like 5 or 6 years old and spends all weekend playing the game…I get so mad like go enjoy your little girl..
  • Hate it too when I see parents dragging their kids to play skills… especially late at night when it is their bedtime…addiction doesn’t give a crap
  • I’m far from father of the year, but introducing your child into the vicious cycle of gambling is a disgrace. Gambling is just as serious of a disease as alcoholism or being a drug addict. It ruins friendships, families, relationships. Some may steal, borrow, and lie to feed their addiction. Hundreds if not thousands of people commit suicide over the stress of gambling and that is a fact(I know from personal experience) and we ALL LIE about our wins and losses and how much we spend. Idc who you are. I said what I said. You wanna gamble that bad get a sitter. Cause introducing children into this is legit child endangerment. There’s a reason casinos are 21+
  • Thank god I stop playing them now. I had to call gambling problem

Defenders of those who take children to unlicensed slot locations

But not everyone agreed and defended taking children to the illicit slot machine locations.

For instance:

  • People should mind their own damn business and their own kids!
  • Did anyone ever think maybe that’s the only enjoyment a stay-at-home mom gets to have. I take $20 a month and play a machine at the gas station. Yes, I got a 6-month old I sit him right beside me in his car seat and get to relax for 10 minutes and take my stress and mind off life for a few minutes. Don’t parent shame. We are not all perfect.
  • I’m not saying gambling is good. But id much rather have my son be a gambler than an acholic or drug addict but I was raised Different. As long as your bills are paid and you have the extra money. Mise well try to make more money but that’s my opinion. Everyone has their own addiction. Between smoking, drinking, drugs, cars, horses, etc…It comes in all forms. Some are just more expensive than others.
  • It’s a damn gas station it’s not a bar and if we bring our children with us to a GAS STATION THAT IS OUR CHOICE people stop playing like you are parent of the year at least we have our children with us and not leaving them to go play maybe you should bring them with and spend a little time with YOUR CHILDREN AND IF YOU DONT HAVE KIDS AND DONT LIKE SEEING OR HEARING THEM THEN LIKE SHE SAID GO TO THE DAMN CASINO !!!!
  • You people that are calling people bad parents (lmfao ) for bringing kids to a damn gas station how about you guys go start your own little group parents against kids at skills machines and while you’re at it get a f*****g life…

Woman who made original post about exposing kids to machines speaks

The Harrisburg 30-something who made the post about players taking kids when they use the unlicensed gambling machines spoke exclusively to PlayPennsylvania via phone.

She has since left the Facebook group after a harassment incident on the site where she posted and asked not to be identified by name.

“Oh, man. I left that group!”

But she remains an occasional player rather than driving to the casino nearest to her. She knows they are not legal gambling machines, she admitted.

“They are in every gas station in my area! It is the convenience. I just pop my change in them.”

The player says some operators are “questionable.”

For instance, she is holding a winning ticket worth $250, but the location claimed they could not pay, saying they did not have enough cash on hand for the payout.

She also knows most have little or no security, so she usually goes to play with someone and avoids playing after dark.

“Awesome!” she said when told Hollywood Casino York opens this week. The mini-casino is about a 22-minute drive from her. It has 510 licensed slot machines.

She said she had just played locally a few days before she agreed to be interviewed.

An adult was at the location playing alongside her with children who were perhaps three and four years old.

“They were climbing all over the machines,” she said.

Photo c/o Pennsylvania State Police.

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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