Georgia’s multi-million dollar business: illegal gambling

Coin-operated amusement machine, or COAM / Eric Mock (WGXA)

MACON, Ga. -- If you live in Middle Georgia you've probably seen a coin-operated amusement machine, or COAM, before.

"These machines are in every convenience store, they're in tattoo parlors, hair salons, laundromats," said GBI Special Agent In Charge of the Commercial Gambling Unit Cindy Ledford.

She said having a coin-operated amusement machine is perfectly legal unless winners are rewarded with cash instead of store credit.

"The illegal cash payout makes this device a gambling device," she said.

Middle Georgia has seen dozens of cases of illegal gambling operations in the past.

In June, GBI agents and Bibb County deputies raided three stores in Macon.

District Attorney for the Macon Judicial Circuit David Cooke said customers gambled around $25 million on COAMs with the promise of cash payouts from 2014 to 2017 at just two stores. But he said that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"Just in the Macon circuit, it's hundreds of millions of dollars a year," Cooke said.

In the 2015 fiscal year, more than $2 billion in cash went into the COAM machines across the state.

Agent Ledford said they have GBI agents dressed undercover in plain clothes all over the state and here in Middle Georgia playing these machines daily to find out who's paying out in cash.

Once the GBI puts together enough evidence, it's up to district attorneys like Cooke to prosecute the COAM owners.

But Cooke said the prosecution is not just about getting money for the state or county.

"You know, mothers were gambling away the grocery money, fathers were gambling away the mortgage money...basically making money off the backs of the addictions of other people, off their suffering," he said.

Ledford said there's so much money to be made that many caught operating illegal gambling will just start back up again later.

"They'll change the ownership of the store and continue to do business," Ledford said.

Cooke said first time offenders rarely see jail time, so in order to really make it count they file civil lawsuits, sometimes suing for millions of dollars.

"This is to hit them in the pocket book, you know. A lot of these people are hurting people so that they can become rich," Cooke said.

Cooke and Ledford say that although they're making a dent, more gambling operations continue to pop up.

"We have several of these cases pending we're always looking at more," Cooke said.

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