CBS NEWS INVESTIGATION: Texas-based Carnival Caught Conning U.S. Soldiers

By: Armen Keteyian, CBS News Chief Investigative Correspondent
By: Armen Keteyian, CBS News Chief Investigative Correspondent

A Texas based company, contracted to entertain the soldiers and families of Ft. Hood and another military base has been allegedly scamming its patrons to bring in easy cash to game operators.

CBS News Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian investigates.

More than 40 million Americans are expected to go to carnivals and fairs this summer. And though most events will bring in cash at the gates, with the down economy fewer people are betting on carnival games--those games of chance and skill that can leave you with a cheap Teddy bear or empty pockets.

All this has led to the re-emergence of con games along the midway, scams to bring in more easy cash to game operators. CBS's Investigative team found cons that were no surprise but what was a surprise was who was being scammed and where.

At the annual Fourth of July Freedom Fest at Fort Hood, soldiers just back from war or ready to deploy were spending the day with their families.

"I gotta win here man, I gotta win," one soldier yells as he plays one of the games on crutches.

But there was no chance they would win at some of these games. The games are run by a Texas company called Century 21Shows. U.S. Taxpayers pay Century 21 through a government contract to entertain the soldiers and families of Ft. Hood and another base in San Antonio, Texas.

One man has been a "carnie" for more than 20 years-working the carnival circuit building and managing games on the midway. He told CBS News, as a military veteran, he was disgusted when he says he discovered soldiers were being ripped off by some Century 21 games.

"I couldn't rob a guy that just came back from war, has his wife and his baby in his hands and take his rent money," The man said. "There's other guys out there that will do it. I've seen it done."

The man agreed to talk to CBS News if his identity was protected during the report. The man even showed CBS News how it was done, building a game game dubbed "Tee-Ball," also known as screw pool from scratch.

"The object of this game is to knock the golf tee out of this circle with the cue ball. You do that ten times and I give you a big-screen TV," the man told CBS.

The man showed the crew the game can be won on the first few tries but with moving the game just an eighth of an inch the game was in the operator's hands.

"We'll build your confidence in it first, make you think you're a superstar, and then we're going to break you down and take all your money."

The man said he's seen people routinely lose $80 or $100 at a time, and sometimes even losing a couple thousand dollars.

CBS News crews took hidden cameras to Ft. Hood on July 4th.

Soldiers fresh back from tours in Afghanistan fell victim to the games.

The manager that day, for Century 21 Shows, Jeremy Bendsons tried to put some distance between his company and the people that run the games. He said most of the games are run by "independent contractors."

In a statement Century 21 Shows said, "It is (our) policy... that all of the games operate fairly" and if the company receives a complaint about a game they will investigate it and "any improper operations will be corrected or the game shutdown."

Five minutes after the crew spoke with their on-site manager, the screw pool and two other games were shut down. Soldiers were told that the pool game was now "broken."

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