From the outside, Net Connection on Hesperian Boulevard in San Lorenzo looks like an ordinary Internet business center. Men and women sit quietly at computers, occasionally stopping for a cigarette and a can of soda. But instead of Microsoft Word or email on the screen, customers are absorbed by sweepstakes games.
In fact, authorities said, Net Connection and three others like it in the county's unincorporated areas -- Rapid Business Solutions, Diamond Internet Services and Web Access -- must stop offering the games or close down immediately. They have only days to get rid of the games or deputies from the Alameda County Sheriff's Office will lock the doors.
On Tuesday, Alameda County supervisors cleared the way for the shutdown after rejecting the owners' appeal, saying the sweepstakes centers are unlawful based on the county's zoning ordinances.
Owner Ron Doyle said the games keep his shop afloat.
"They are depriving us of our rights to do business in America," he said Tuesday after the hearing.
Doyle did get a temporary victory Tuesday in a separate fight to keep his shop in Hayward open. A judge issued a temporary restraining order allowing the Hayward Net Connection to reopen until a court hearing scheduled for April 9.
By the end of the day Wednesday, Doyle had closed his San Lorenzo location, leaving a sign on the door instructing customers to visit his Hayward shop, where the county ban does not apply, county officials said.
Diamond Internet Services owner Alberto Medina said without the traffic the sweepstakes bring through the doors, his shop in Cherryland could not survive and he would not be able to offer the public computer training, fax, email and Web design services.
County officials said Medina's store was closed when they visited Wednesday to post a notice about the sweepstakes ban and check to see if any patrons were playing the games.
Web Access owner Rick Caviglia said technically speaking, sweepstakes games are not part of his Castro Valley business because they cannot be bought. "We sell Internet time and sweepstakes games to go with it," he said. In fact, he added, California law allows everyone to play sweepstakes for free once per day.
A lot of people show up every day for the access they are guaranteed by law, he said. "Same as McDonald's," he said, likening them to online sweepstakes games run by McDonald's, Coca Cola, Carl's Jr. and even President Barack Obama.
Users logging on to a computer at the centers see two large icons on the home page asking them to choose to browse the Internet or opt for free sweepstakes games. The home page by default displays sweepstakes points, Internet time and total win.
Owners are expected to patrol their patrons to make sure they're not playing sweepstakes games, a prospect that attendees of a county unincorporated services meeting Wednesday balked at.
"I don't believe they will self-police themselves. In fact, if you look at the software, you can't really go anywhere on the Internet, so it's a farce," said Hugh O'Donnell, president of the Cherryland Community Association. "Unfortunately, it's a business model that has been pushed and it does make money for the owners but it attracts a very bad element for our community and we are opposed to them."
Sheriff deputies responded to 172 calls between June 2012 and February 2013 at the four businesses. Some of the calls came from the businesses and had little to do with them. But deputies made 32 arrests involving counterfeit money; drunken, disorderly conduct; weapons; and drugs.
Supervisor Nate Miley, however, anticipated a lawsuit over the issue and tried to draw out a specific reason Tuesday for shutting down the sweepstakes centers defined by the county as businesses where the primary use is providing access to Internet gaming and recreation software that award prizes.
The games range from video slot machines to poker, roulette and blackjack hosted on local or remote software servers, making them look a lot like gambling.
"We know that," said James Mecham, the managing director of SweepsCoach, a Sacramento-based company that helps set up new sweepstakes centers.
"That's the allure," he said. "People like to feel like they're gambling."
"The key piece is you're not buying a chance to win," he said, adding, "Is there a gray area? Absolutely."
Lawyers for the owners said they had not yet decided whether to sue, now their only option.
The American Gaming Association, which fiercely opposes their unregulated competitors, say the sweepstakes centers are carefully designed to avoid state antigambling laws and gambling licensing restrictions.
The state Bureau of Gambling Control decided it was a black-and-white issue, saying the centers aim to skirt state gambling laws and are illegal. The advisory gave local governments like Alameda County a firmer footing to go after the businesses.
"If they can't become legitimate Internet cafes," Ashland resident Geoffrey Thatcher, who lives close to Diamond Internet Services in the Creekside Center, said, "then I think they need to go."
Staff writer Rebecca Parr contributed to this report.
Rapid Business Solutions, 17780 Hesperian Blvd., San Lorenzo
Diamond Internet Services, 20812 Mission Blvd., Cherryland
Web Access, 2576 Castro Valley Blvd., Castro Valley
Net Connection, 15915 Hesperian Blvd., San Lorenzo