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Inspectors look for rigged boardwalk games

May 31, 2012 8:59:05 PM PDT
As soon as he saw the balloon dart game at one boardwalk stand, Martin Silva knew something was wrong.

Some of the balloons were under-inflated. Darts tend to bounce off balloons when they're not fully inflated, making them harder to burst, he said.

A senior inspector with the state Division of Consumer Affairs, Silva determined the saggy balloons constituted a violation of New Jersey's consumer protection laws.

He could have hit the stand with a $250 fine, but gave it a break, noting that it had just opened for the day and allowing for the possibility that the balloons had lost air overnight. At his urging, the girl operating the stand spent the next hour diligently inflating new balloons and replacing the saggy ones.

It was part of an effort by the state to ensure that boardwalk games along the Jersey shore are not rigged against customers. Similar sweeps will occur soon in Wildwood and Atlantic City.

"As a teenager, I don't know how many of these buildings I helped build with all the money I lost, but it was a lot," said Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa. "We want to make sure the games are conducted in a way that is fair so folks can come here and have an honest chance."

He recalled trying for days to win a game in which a red circle had to be completely covered by five metal discs. No matter how many times he tried, the young Chiesa could not win.

Years later, he found out that some unscrupulous operators place magnets under the circle, making it physically impossible for the metal discs to completely cover the circle.

In their first hour of work, inspectors found a handful of relatively minor violations including an arcade game using software that was not certified by the state. The violations carry fines of $250 each, but nothing was immediately found that warranted the instant shutdown of a game, which inspectors are empowered to do.

By the end of the day, inspectors issued violation notices to two game operators and gave a warning to a third. A basketball game was using badly overinflated balls, making them much more likely to ricochet, and making it harder for the player to score.

The total was an improvement over last year, when 15 violation notices were issued at each of the three boardwalks that inspectors visited. But the Seaside Heights visit was announced in advance by the state, and many game operators simply kept their games shuttered Thursday. Silva said inspectors also make unannounced visits throughout the summer.

Crystal Karkatselos won a prize at a game in which contestants shoot water guns into a target to fill up a balloon. The first player to burst the balloon wins.

The Tampa, Fla., visitor thinks boardwalk games are rigged "about half the time," yet said that suspicion doesn't bother her.

"It's your choice to play the games," she said. "It's not like they're forcing you to play them."

Inspectors asked Vinnie Scuzzese to remove several bushel baskets that were bolted to his stand. Customers toss softballs into the baskets and must get one to stay inside in order to win.

Inspectors were looking for any alterations to the inside or bottom of the basket, or any kind of foreign substance underneath it that would cause balls to bounce out more frequently than normal. They found nothing amiss, and Scuzzese took the intrusion in stride.

"I've been doing this a long time," he said. "Whatever they want to see, I show them."

Other things that were checked included crane games, specifically making sure the crane arms have the required tension to support grasping a prize and delivering it to the customer through a slot, or whether they were set so softly that the crane automatically let go of a prize, making the customer a loser.

One crane game was found to be using software that was not approved by the state, resulting in a violation.

Other unrelated violations were found at a stand that gave away shiny bead necklaces that contain lead in excess of federal guidelines. The stand voluntarily surrendered the necklaces to inspectors.

Two stores had a total of 15 novelty cigarette lighters that look like toys. They are illegal in New Jersey because they are attractive to children, who are at risk of starting fires with them.

Five stores also were cited for mercantile license violations, mostly for not clearly posting the price of items for sale. One store had 973 separate violations.

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