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Internet poker giants indicted in U.S. crackdown

Indictment accuses offshore companies of laundering money through fake online merchants to circumvent U.S. anti-online gambling law.

This was the message displayed after U.S. authorities seized the domains of the online poker sites.
This was the message displayed after U.S. authorities seized the domains of the online poker sites.

Several founders of the three largest Internet poker companies doing business in the U.S. have been arrested as part of an indictment that includes charges of bank fraud, money laundering, and other online gambling-related offenses, the U.S. Attorney's office said today.

The three offshore companies--PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker--are accused of circumventing a 2006 U.S. law that prohibits financial institutions from handling transactions for online gambling sites. Prosecutors say they allegedly tricked U.S. banks and credit card issuers into processing billions of dollars in transactions that appeared to be legitimate sales on hundreds of fake online retail sites purportedly selling jewelry and golf balls. One-third of the money allegedly went directly to the poker companies as revenue through a fee charged to players on each poker hand played, according to the indictment, which was unsealed today in U.S. District Court in New York.

After U.S. banks and financial institutions detected fraudulent bank accounts and shut them down, the defendants allegedly paid a few small, financially troubled banks money as investments in return for processing the payments, according to the indictment. The deals allegedly included a $10 million investment in a private Utah bank that gave the poker companies more than a 30 percent ownership stake, prosecutors said.

The indictment and civil lawsuit seek at least $3 billion in money laundering penalties and forfeiture from the defendants. The federal court issued a restraining order on about 76 bank accounts in 14 countries and seized five Internet domain names allegedly used for operating the illegal games.

Two of the 11 defendants were arrested this morning in Utah and Nevada and authorities are looking for the others, some who may be in other countries, authorities said.

Restraining orders were issued against more than 75 bank accounts allegedly used by the defendants and their payment processors. Five Internet domain names used to host the games were seized by federal authorities.

Representatives from the poker companies named in the indictment could not be reached for comment. The Web sites displayed messages saying "This domain has been seized by the FBI pursuant to an arrest warrant."

"These defendants concocted an elaborate criminal fraud scheme, alternately tricking some U.S. banks and effectively bribing others to assure the continued flow of billions in illegal gambling profits. Moreover, as we allege, in their zeal to circumvent the gambling laws, the defendants also engaged in massive money laundering and bank fraud," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. Foreign firms that choose to operate in the United States are not free to flout the laws they don't like simply because they can't bear to be parted from their profits."

Updated 4:50 p.m. PT to clarify that the law prohibits financial institutions from conducting transactions for online gambling sites.