Is Money Laundering Why States Are Slow To Greenlight Online Sports Betting?

Posted on August 20, 2018

The rush to get sports betting up and running across the country has caused some hiccups in the rollout to date. In the opening weekend at The Meadowlands, FanDuel posted laughable lines. The book quickly corrected those lines.

Similarly, in Mississippi, the first weekend of legalized sports betting passed without a single casino obtaining a license. While the product roll outs have been somewhat bumpy, it is likely that operators will fix the kinks in the coming weeks.

One area we have seen a lag is the launch of mobile / online sports betting. This is likely due to regulatory issues, but this may also be a risk management strategy.

Lawmakers have historically disliked gaming. However, their dislike for online gaming seems exponentially greater. There has been an extensive history of Congress connecting online gaming to illegal activities. While chances of Congress seeking to stop brick and mortar sports betting expansion remain very low, online gambling may face a greater threat.

The post 9/11 era

In the wake of September 11, 2001, Congress went after funding mechanisms that had been used by terrorists. A Washington Post article from 2007 noted a joint investigation between U.S. and British authorities. In the case, three men were accused of using “computer viruses and stolen credit card accounts to set up a network of communication forums and Web sites that hosted such things as tutorials on computer hacking and bomb-making….”

The men were using the money to:

“buy items that fellow jihadists might need in the field. Authorities also say the men laundered money from stolen credit card accounts through more than a dozen online gambling sites.”

One of the group members “allegedly laundered money through online gambling sites, using accounts set up with stolen credit card numbers and victims’ identities, and ran up thousand-dollar tabs at such sites as AbsolutePoker.com, BetFair.com, BetonBet.com, Canbet.com, Eurobet.com, NoblePoker.com, and ParadisePoker.com.”

The group completed hundreds of transactions at more than 40 different sites. When successful, the group would withdraw the money from the gambling site. Then they would transfer it online to their bank accounts.

Congressional concerns about online gambling

After the Washington Post article, there was a recurring theme in congressional hearings related to online wagering. They nearly universally contained some reference connecting online wagering to money laundering. In 2009, Congressman Spencer Bachus wrote to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller requesting answers to a variety of questions regarding online poker.

Amongst the questions Bachus posed to Mueller was whether “technology could be used to illicitly transfer or launder money in the guise of ‘innocent’ participation in an online poker game…?”

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FBI responds to online casino worries

In the response from Assistant FBI Director Shawn Henry, the FBI took this position:

“Yes, online poker could be used to transfer ill-gotten gains from one person to another, or several other people. Private tournaments exist on several online poker programs which would allow a subject to create a private game with his/her money mules. Once the game is created, the subject could raise the pot, to whatever maximum amount is allowed, and then fold before the hand is finished. This would allow the subject to transfer the money from his account to the mule account. This activity could repeat itself several times, virtually ‘washing the money.’ Once again, this activity could be detected by the vendors, but at what cost…?”

Several years later, Congressman Bill Young wrote to the FBI requesting information about money laundering via online gambling.

Deputy Assistant FBI Director J. Britt Johnson responded to Young, stating:

“Online casinos are vulnerable to a wide array of criminal schemes. For example, criminals may participate in games with exclusively criminal players, exchanging money to launder criminal proceeds; or a criminal might intentionally lose a game to a public official in order to effect a bribe payment. Transnational organized crime (TOC) groups might exploit legal online gambling to generate revenue, steal personally identifiable information (PII), and engage in public corruption. TOC groups could hire hackers to rig games in favor of TOC members playing in a particular game—depriving the game operators of revenue. TOC groups could also use intrusions to steal PII from players, which the groups could employ in future financial fraud schemes.”

FBI always emphasized difficulty detecting money laundering

The letter goes on to take a subtle jab noting that many of these methods could be “detected and thwarted by a prudent online casino, for example, by blocking software designed to enable online anonymity.” But, Johnson stated the other, more sophisticated methods may be difficult to “identify or deter.”

What to make of the slow online roll out?

Mobile betting is coming. However, given the recent history of Congress being hyper-vigilant regarding online gaming, it appears prudent for operators to play it safe. Cybercrime is our new reality. In many ways, the bookmaker model of online wagering is likely a greater obstacle to money laundering than certain other wagering formats such as some types of exchange wagering.

Anti-money laundering protocols are an important step for all operators. Given the attention at the federal level, it is also not one where operators cannot afford to take shortcuts and bungle the launch.

Indeed, anti-money laundering concerns arose in the daily fantasy industry as well. Even so, the industry has appeared to weather the storm.

While there has been historical opposition to expanded online wagering in Congress, the move from brick and mortar to online is unavoidable. It is likely best for the industry to ensure that the online rollout happens glitch-free. After all, the stakes may be substantially higher with a highly public failure.

Such a failure could give Congress ammunition to roll out new regulations for online betting.

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John Holden

John Holden J.D. / Ph.D. is an academic. His research focuses on policy issues surrounding sports corruption.

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