Last week the Department of Justice shut down the three largest online poker websites leaving up to 10 million online poker players unable to access their accounts. Two additional sites have further been seized since the initial action by the Feds. The U.S. has frozen individual accounts of online poker players in 14 different countries. To some players the Federal Government’s intervention has left them unable to access thousands of dollars. Many people played online poker as a full time job and are now left unsure whether or not they will be able to ever access money many people thought they were winning legally.
FullTiltPoker.com, AbsolutePoker.com, PokerStars.com, Ultimatebet.com and UB.com, and the banks that serviced them have all been charged by Federal prosecutors with fraud, money laundering and illegal gambling. Instead of being able to log in and play poker, players who attempt to access any of the three sites instead find a haunting message from the Department of Justice and an FBI seal. When trying to access any of the five sites they now explicitely say:
This domain name has been seized by the F.B.I. purusant to an Arrest Warrant in Rem obtained by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and issues by the United States District for the Southern District of New York.”
Conducting, financing, managing, supervising, directing, or woning all or part of an illegal gambling business is a federal crime. (18 U.S.C. § 1955)
For persons engaged in the business of betting or wagering, it is also a federal crime to knowingly accept, in connection with the participation of another person in unlawful internet gambling, credit, electronic fund transfers or checks. (31 U.S.C. § § 5363 & 5366)
Violations of these laws carry criminal penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000.
Properties, including domain names, used in violation of the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 1955 or involved in money laundering transactions are subject to forfeiture to the United States. (18 U.S.C. § § 981 & 1955(d))
Kelly Langmesser, a spokesperson for the FBI’s New York office says about 76 bank accounts have been frozen to prevent players from accessing balances held by the online betting companies. The FBI is looking at the funds and accounts in order to determine whether or not they are profits from an illegal enterprise. The funds will not be available until a determination has been made.
ESPN, one of the major players in supporting poker through advertising, is currently making efforts to remove related advertising and programming from it’s TV channels and website. Most likely NBC, Fox Sports Net and the Game Show Network will follow in ESPN’s footsteps to no longer support online poker until further review is undertaken.
A professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the co-editor of Gambling Law Review, Joseph Kelly, says there is a decent case that the online poker players really didn’t break the law. Kelly says, “It’s uncertain whether these laws actually prohibit online poker. The Justice Department says it does.”
While no players themselves have been charged with crimes, they are still left out of luck in terms of accessing their funds that were in the accounts. One online poker player, Russell Fox, considered his poker playing a part-time job and his secondary income that supplements his full-time job as a sales rep for a beverage company. Fox is not alone, with many players considering online poker playing their full-time jobs.
Central to many players’ disputes with the shut down of the websites is that fact that only the top 5 sites got shut down while at least 25 other poker websites are still up and running. Clearly the Feds were trying to make a point.