Thursday, March 22, 2007

Shhh! A Superman of Illegal March Madness Activity Tells All | How Online Gambling Got the Boot

Party Poker no longer allows paying American customers at its virtual tables.

By Jamie Hancock, MLIS

For the last five years, I have been the mastermind of a criminal operation. My business has been largely successful because: 1) there is a high demand for these types of services and 2) I always conduct secret transactions with my clients. I’ve also been extremely lucky, in terms of profit and evading federal prosecution. However, if someone were to report my illegal activity, I have ways of dealing with them...

Fortunately, it has never come to that. This spring, I’m running a March Madness tournament pool for the sixth straight year. I’m using the CBS Bracket Manager to track the results of client picks for 64 games. With 24 participants at $15 a pop, I stand to make a pretty good bonus if I pick the right teams. In the second week of action, my Final Four predictions look strong, with Florida, Texas A&M, Kansas and Georgetown in the mix.

Still, I’m concerned for my livelihood and the financial security of my family and friends. On October 13, 2006, President George Bush signed the Safe Port Act. Attached to this legislation is the “Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA),” which prohibits the funding of illegal online gambling sites and services. In particular, it states “no person engaged in the business of betting or wagering may knowingly accept, in connection with the participation of another person in unlawful Internet gambling...any check...which is drawn by or on behalf of such other person...” Violation of this act could carry a stiff prison sentence. Luckily the government is incapable of monitoring check transactions to private persons for gambling purposes (which means my homegrown operation is in the clear, as long as nobody talks).

Congress believes that Internet gambling is a problem, but it wants to preserve the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978.

The feds have bigger fish to fry. UIGEA primarily targets designated payment systems (i.e. PayPal, Google Checkout, WebMoney) in order to cut the money flow from gamblers to Internet gambling sites. On January 15, 2007, the FBI arrested Stephen Lawrence and John Lefebvre, two founders of Neteller, an Internet payment services company. Even though Neteller is based on the Isle of Man, the company has allowed the transfer of billions of dollars in illegal gambling proceeds from American citizens to overseas gambling merchants. By its own account, Neteller provided services to at least 80% of online gaming companies. Both men were apprehended when they stepped on American soil and are awaiting a hearing on April 16th. Following their arrests, Neteller has cut off services to all U.S. citizens and the federal government has seized $55 million from customer accounts.

Like many other gambling websites, Bodog and Full Tilt Poker have not been deterred by the legislation. The former is housed in Antigua and the both companies hold gaming licenses from the Kahnawake Gaming Commission in Canada. Besides falling outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. government, these websites accept credit cards and money transfers (through Western Union or MoneyGram). On the other hand, some companies such as Party Poker have caved in to the restrictions of UIGEA and no longer accept U.S. players. But even Hollywood Poker, which has cut off U.S. business, still allows American celebrities like James Woods to continue playing poker games.

Halftime warmup for USC & Arkansas in the first round of NCAA March Madness (Spokane 2007).

While offshore companies currently remain unaffected, it is unknown how the Secretary of Treasury, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and the Attorney General plan to identify and block illegal transactions. These officials have until July 2007 (270-day period after the bill’s passage) to establish procedures for regulating money transfers to overseas gambling merchants. Critics of the bill say that it’s an immense technological challenge. The Automated Clearing House network (ACH), a processing system utilized by the Federal Reserve, can’t distinguish between a gambling transaction and a car payment; nor can any other kind of payment system. In simple terms, a bank that sends money to another bank account does not keep records on the person who holds the receiving account.

One option under consideration is to assign a merchant code to online gambling operators and forbid banks and payment systems from sending money to companies with this code (VISA created the 7995 code to prevent credit card use on gambling sites in 2001). This problem with this method is that it may block legitimate transactions unrelated to gambling. In addition, the U.S. law will not extend to overseas payment systems like Neteller (unless, of course, the CEO is caught on American soil).

Another unresolved issue is the bill’s impact on Internet service providers (ISPs) and search engines located in the U.S. Depending on how far the federal government extends its reach, officials may ask ISPs to remove sites and block hyperlinks that permit money transfers to illegal gambling companies. Or perhaps the U.S. will order Google, Yahoo! and other search engines to block certain links or advertisements. Although gambling sites can sidestep these obstacles by changing their website addresses, this kind of regulation would restrict certain information from reaching American citizens.

Not surprisingly, the international community has not been supportive of the U.S. efforts to crack down on Internet gambling. The European Internal Union Market Commissioner said he has no intentions to push forth legislation that complements UIGEA. In January, the World Trade Organization (WTO) sided with Antigua in its trade dispute with the U.S. The appellate body claims that the U.S. is violating its treaty obligations. Under GATS (General Agreement on Trades in Services), all services inside Antigua and the U.S. are open to free trade. A final ruling is due from the WTO in March 2007.

One of the reasons the WTO objects to the UIGEA is that the U.S. applies the prohibition of Internet gambling inconsistently. According to the bill, a bet or wager is “means the staking or risking by any person of something of value upon the outcome of a contest of others, a sporting event, or a game subject to chance...” Under this definition, sports gambling, online poker, online blackjack, and other casino games are illegal. Exempt from the ban are horseracing, lotteries, tribal gaming, and fantasy sports that offer cash prizes. It’s curious that the law makes a distinction between betting on individual teams/players/games versus fantasy teams. Somehow, legislators concluded that a fantasy team is less real and therefore more acceptable than other forms of betting. And why is it more permissible to bet on a bunch of horses than the San Diego Chargers?

The UIGEA is intended to curb Internet gaming fraud and gambling addiction, prevent ease of access to children, and eliminate fronts for money laundering, drug trafficking, and terrorist financing. There is no question that the online gambling industry is well established in America. Half of the $12 billion sent to offshore casinos every year comes from American citizens. Young people, not to mention problem gamblers, have 24-hour access to gambling sites at home. Placing bets with credit cards (instead of chips at a real blackjack or roulette table) also distorts perceptions of cash value. But Title VIII of the Safe Port Act will not effectively alter the gambling habits of Americans. Internet gambling companies can find technological loopholes to combat federal legislation. As long as there is one safe harbor overseas, online sports wagers and casino bets will not go away. Gambling is intrinsically tied to all sporting events and the last decade has seen tremendous growth in the popularity of poker.

In all fairness to the politicians, a legitimate businessman like myself should be respected and not admonished. Just because I let my 11 year-old cousin participate in the March Madness contest (and he picks Duke to win every year) does not mean I’m being irresponsible. I am offering him an opportunity to win a great deal of money and someday he will be victorious. Until then, I’m going to keep taking his money.

(By the way, $200 out the total $360 in my tournament pool is being donated to charity).

Editor’s Note: As far as we know, Jamie has never gone Up The River for spearheading this annual wagering wingding.


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STICKYBOI - said...

i agree with the legislation which aims to ban credit cards as a payment method for online gambling of any sort... i mean its a no brainer when you consider you are placing somebody else’s money on an uncertain event happening with the aim to recoup more than you invested. Chance and credit do not mix well in my opinion, and continuing to allow it would only contribute further to negatively affecting the high levels of personal debt many citizens today find themselves in. I agree however, in a sense that it won't work - i mean whats the point in banning credit card payments for online poker, for example, but not online sports betting? slightly hipocritical no? I mean how can you allow someone to participate in online horse racing betting, but not have a gamble on a hand of cards? both activities involve a large degree of chance, and neither are guaranteed to yield financial return.
It also infuriates me that the minority of irresponsible gamblers [those paying with someone elses money!] have now ruined the fun of online betting for everyone else - those like me who pay with money they actually have in their bank!! boooo

Anonymous said...

have you heard that facebook have online poker game applications. the provider of the applications Ujogo is only offering its services to US players and offers US players cash as well as other prizes . Us Brits dont have it has bad as the Americans with the UNLAWFUL internet gambling enforcement act of 2006.We can still freely play our casino poker games for money online.