Costa Rica-based BetOnSports could be forced to forfeit $4.5 billion to U.S. government.
NEW YORK -- Since BetOnSports PLC started accepting wagers online, gamblers played the odds on plenty of sporting events. But they also gambled on whether U.S. prosecutors would one day target the Costa Rica-based company for possibly violating federal law.
Now, gamblers are wondering if they'll ever get their money back after a judge's temporary restraining order forced BetOnSports to disable its Web site, blocking access to player accounts.
"I just can't get past how much I could lose," a New Jersey bettor named Eric wrote recently on a gambling blog.
BetOnSports faces a 22-count indictment on fraud and racketeering charges in the U.S. District Court in St. Louis. David Carruthers, the firm's former chief executive, remains in jail in the United States after being arrested while changing planes in Texas.
Prosecutors are seeking the forfeiture of $4.5 billion, plus several cars, recreational vehicles and computers from Carruthers and 10 other people associated with the gambling operation.
Federal prosecutor Catherine Hanaway told The Associated Press that last month's federal restraining order requires BetOnSports to return any money that American customers have tied up with the site.
The order, which expires Monday but could be extended, also prevents BetOnSports from taking U.S.-based bets.
But Hanaway said if BetOnSports doesn't return the money, the U.S. government has every right to seize it.
Hanaway contends the bets were placed illegally, violating the 1961 federal Wire Act. That means the government could take the money to settle legal claims in the same way it takes money from drug cartels, Hanaway said.
"In all kinds of crimes we forfeit money that someone has paid," she said.
An executive with BetOnSports says the company is trying to return deposits and pending wagers before that scenario plays out.
"Customers will get their money," the executive said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the case.
But the executive said that because of the judge's order on July 17, some payment processors, or e-wallets as they're known, have stopped doing business with BetOnSports. The executive said BetOnSports has no way to transfer the bulk of the pending wagers or deposits to gamblers.
"We are in a difficult position," the executive said.
The executive declined to give the value of the pending wagers and deposits. It could be plenty.
Almost all the wagers placed on BetOnSports come from the U.S. For the 53 weeks preceding February 2005, the company's sportsbook had more than 71,000 active customers who placed 9.9 million bets. The average bet was $109. Prosecutors said 97 percent of the sports bets are made on American football, basketball and baseball.
BetOnSports relies on non-U.S. payment processors such as Neteller and FirePay to serve as middlemen for the site.
That is bad news for some BetOnSports gamblers -- despite the fact the Justice Department has not yet gone after these payment processors. Like BetOnSports, Neteller and FireOne are publicly traded in London and regulated by British authorities.
"Neteller has for the moment suspended doing business with BetOnSports and is reviewing the relationship in light of what happened," company spokes-man Sebastian Hoyle wrote in an e-mail.
The BetOnSports executive says FirePay has also stopped doing business with the betting site.
I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier College of Law and an expert on Internet gambling, said the government has a strong case against BetOnSports but not against its customers.
"The Wire Act does make it a crime to be in the gambling business and accept sports bets but it does not make it a crime to be the bettor," Rose said.
Rose said the government can't confiscate the deposits, because the bettors haven't done anything illegal. To say the bettors are as guilty as the bookies is wrong, he said.
"This is saying the buyer of drugs is aiding and abetting the seller of drugs and therefore is guilty of selling drugs," Rose said. "It won't wash."
Rose said the government needs to rethink its position and the money should be returned to the bettors.
"There are lots of legal questions involved in this but the one ... that's not a question is that the money in those accounts belongs to the players," Rose said. "These are deposits, not disputes over winnings."