They set up business in abandoned storefronts and cover the windows with butcher's paper.

Underground gambling casinos want no one but their patrons knowing of their existence.

Unfortunately for them, Kern County sheriff's personnel have caught on.

Since January 2018, the Sheriff's Office has busted about 100 of these establishments, which feature illegal video gambling machines commonly called "fish hunter" games. They involve shooting at brightly-colored fish and other undersea creatures to rack up points.

The difference between these illegal games and typical video games is that these involve chance. It's entirely random as to whether a hit results in points.

They can be highly profitable.

Sheriff's Sgt. Ryan Dunbier said during a press conference regarding illegal gambling March 20 that each game can rake in an estimated $50,000 to $100,000 per month. They're so profitable that after deputies remove the gaming software, they'll return the next day to find new software has already been purchased and installed.

"Now we take the whole machine," Dunbier said. 

It's not just the illegal gambling that troubles sheriff's officials — it's the resulting rise in crime that occurs in areas where underground casinos are set up. 

The Sheriff's Office has seen, in some instances, a tenfold increase in crime in areas surrounding underground casinos, Dunbier said. He said he's seized illegal firearms, including an AK-47, and illegal drugs from these establishments. Burglaries, vehicle thefts and other property crime become rampant near them. 

The clientele these businesses attract typically has run afoul of the law, Dunbier said. Many have outstanding warrants. 

"If there are 12 people in there when we walk in, 10 will go to jail," he said.

But sometimes the people inside are victims, too. One man admitted to Dunbier that he had a gambling addiction. Others have drug problems. 

As the casinos have been shut down, operators are finding new ways to make a buck. There's been a mover from the large gambling video games, Dunbier said, to ones that can be played on desktops using 10-inch handheld Tablets or on cellphones by using bitcoin.

Instead of storefronts, some casinos are being established inside residences. The owners are trying to stay a step ahead of law enforcement, Dunbier said.

Gambling is generally illegal in California, with licensed exceptions including the state lottery, licensed card houses and tribal casinos.

Sheriff's officials said CalGETS (California Gambling Education and Treatment Services) provides a variety of treatment options to gamblers and their adult loved ones. The no-cost, confidential service can be reached by calling 1-800-GAMBLER, texting SUPPORT to 53342, or going to 800gambler.chat.

Anyone aware of illegal gambling is asked to call the Kern County Sheriff’s Office at 861-3110 or call their Secret Witness Line at 322-4040.

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