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US charges major poker websites with bank fraud
PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker are accused of bribing banks to process transactions from illegal gambling.

UNITED STATES AUTHORITIES have busted the three of the world’s largest online poker websites, charging them of bank fraud and illegal gambling against 11 people, and accusing them of manipulating banks to process billions of dollars in illegal revenue.

Prosecutors in Manhattan secured restraining orders against more than 75 bank accounts in 14 countries used by the poker companies, interrupting what they said was the illegal flow of billions of dollars.

US attorney Preet Bharara said the poker companies had “concocted an elaborate criminal fraud scheme, alternately tricking some US banks and effectively bribing others to assure the continued flow of billions in illegal gambling profits.”

The companies – all of which are based overseas – were identified as PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker (which has offices in Dublin) and Absolute Poker. The indictment sought $3 billion in money laundering penalties and forfeiture from the defendants.

The indictment said the companies ran foul of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, enacted in late 2006, which makes it a crime for gambling businesses to knowingly accept most forms of payment in connection with the participation of another person in unlawful Internet gambling.

Absolute Poker had responded by saying in a release that it would continue its US operations because Congress had “no control over” the company’s payment transactions.

PokerStars posted a statement to its players through its computer software and on Twitter, saying it had suspended real money play to customers based in the United States.

“Please be assured player balances are safe. There is no cause for concern,” the company said. “For all customers outside the US it is business as usual.”

Full Tilt Poker released a statement defending its executives named in the indictment, including Nelson Burtnick and its chief executive Raymond Bitar.

“I am surprised and disappointed by the government’s decision to bring these charges,” Bitar said in a statement. “I look forward to Mr Burtnick’s and my exoneration.”

Bitar is accused of arranging for money received from American gamblers to be disguised as payments to online merchants that didn’t exist.

The company said it has suspended play for real money on its site in the United States but would continue offering gambling on poker in other countries.

The indictment said the defendants had used fraudulent methods to trick financial institutions into processing payments on their behalf after the law was passed, saying they had sometimes arranged for money from US gamblers to be disguised as payments to hundreds of non-existent online merchants, purporting to sell merchandise such as jewellery and golf balls.

Frank Fahrenkopf, chief executive of the American Gaming Association, said the prosecution showed a “clear need to strengthen laws to address illegal online gambling in the US”.