All you need is $10 and a 14-Mission Muni bus.
Net Stop is one of at least five “Internet sweepstakes cafes” that have opened in the Excelsior district over the past year, bringing with them problems for the neighborhood, according to residents and Supervisor John Avalos, who represents the area.
At about 2,000 square feet and with dozens of computers that operate 24 hours a day on weekends, Net Stop is the biggest of the five — and reportedly the biggest problem. Avalos told The San Francisco Examiner that since the cafes began operating, crime in the area has spiked.
“You can just look in the window and see the slot machines going full bore,” said Avalos, adding that the cafes are “attracting and exploiting many people desperate for easy winnings.”
Net Stop is also next to the Excelsior Community Center. Teenage girls — and some even younger — entering and exiting the center have been subjected to sexual harassment by Net Stop patrons, said Ailed Paningbatan-Swan, who runs the organization’s programs.
Despite that and increased reports of assaults and robberies in the area of Mission Street and Excelsior Avenue, the businesses are operating legally because, under the letter of the law, they don’t host gambling.
Net Stop’s model falls under the same law that allows McDonald’s patrons to play the fast-food chain’s famous Monopoly sweepstakes game.
In this case, Net Stop customers purchase time to use the computers. The time comes with credits that can be used for Web browsing or playing “sweepstakes games,” which include video poker, keno and slots.
Lose and you can buy more time on the computer; win and you can be cashed out. Just like a casino.
THE LEGAL SIDE OF THINGS
Businesses such as Net Stop — which does not advertise on its exterior anything more than basic office services — have popped up in other Bay Area cities. Hayward, for instance, declared the cafes a public nuisance but has not been able to shut them down.
Figure 8 Technologies, the North Carolina-based company that provides software for the games — software used by Net Stop — is fighting a Hayward ban in court.
The San Francisco Police Department is building its own case against Net Stop, but the process is slow, Deputy Chief Rich Loftus said during an Excelsior community meeting last week.
“Net Stop is a problem for us,” he said. “But unfortunately, this is not like an episode of “CSI,” something you can wrap up in 45 minutes. This is a complex investigation … but trust me, we are working on it.”
Net Stop is owned and operated by Thomas P. Lacey, according to city records — and he’s been on police’s radar before for hosting a gambling business.
In 2009, a distinctive home owned by Lacey on Newhall Avenue in the Bayview district — called “The Castle” for its turreted roof — was raided by police, who made several drug-related arrests and seized video gaming machines.
Lacey was never charged with any crimes, according to Stephanie Ong Stillman, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office.
It’s unclear if these gaming cafes have sprouted up in other San Francisco neighborhoods. The Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Lacey was not at the business Thursday. Speaking on his behalf, an employee defended Net Stop as a legitimate enterprise that provides eight jobs — including one for a Downtown High School senior who reportedly also receives school credit for the work — and entertainment to “everyday, working-class people who want to unwind.”
“This is not illegal,” said Alisha, who would only provide her first name. “It’s legal and it’s safe — and it’s an honest living.”
DEFENDING THEIR BUSINESS
The recently renovated building that houses Net Stop is owned by a well-known San Francisco family with political connections who maintains that the business is legitimate.
Michael Farrah Sr. — whose son Michael Farrah Jr. served as a senior adviser to former Mayor Gavin Newsom — has owned the building for decades, property records show.
Farrah Sr. did not return calls for comment Thursday.
But when Avalos complained to him about the problems caused by Net Stop, the elder Farrah told the supervisor that the business is a “good tenant” and that residents wrote “many letters in support.”
Avalos said his request to see the letters was denied.
Meanwhile, Excelsior residents say the businesses are a plague.
Net Stop is “bringing crime and strife to the Excelsior,” Patricia De Fonte, block captain of Ney Street Neighborhood Watch, wrote in a letter to Mayor Ed Lee. “These types of businesses can destroy our neighborhood.”