For decades, the only way to place a sports bet was to use an offshore sportsbook. They began via telephone in the late 1990s, and, along with the internet, a new breed of books began operating online only.
While some of these books have decent reputations, none of them have oversight, which means their customers have no recourse if one of these offshore sportsbooks refuse to pay.
The Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) of 1992 stopped domestic licensing of sports betting sites for decades. In 2018, the act was challenged and overturned by the US Supreme Court.
The ruling paved the way for new, legal sportsbooks regulated by the states. New Jersey was first to offer regulated online sports betting with Pennsylvania close behind. Currently, more states are in the process of introducing legislation for their online gambling sites.
Here are the critical differences between legal US betting sites and shady, offshore operators.
The differences between regulated sportsbook sites and offshore sites
Let’s start with some definitions, which is vital since legal sportsbooks and gray market sportsbooks look similar, at first glance.
Regulated sportsbook sites
These sportsbooks are all licensed by casinos or racetracks, which have brick-and-mortar operations and technology partners that run the sites.
Each site will display a badge from its licensing authority, e.g., the New Jersey Division of Gambling Enforcement (NJDGE). Legal sportsbooks will have a responsible gambling policy in place that includes self-exclusion and deposit limits.
Also, you’ll be able to find an official, registered address within the state. Finally, all regulated, legal sportsbooks offer a range of mainstream deposit options including credit cards, PayPal and bank transfers.
Offshore sportsbook sites
There are many long-running brands, some of which have logos and designs that will be familiar to sports bettors.
The key difference is in the licensing authorities. You will find this information in the footer of each site. Look for authorities like Panama, Curacao and Antigua, which are offshore nations that allow gambling sites to operate.
Another strong “tell” that a sportsbook operates offshore is the type of deposit options available. If Bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies), money transfers and voucher systems are the only way to deposit, then this is a red flag.
When it comes to offshore sportsbooks, there is a blurred line between legality and safety.
Many of these offshore books claim they are legal under the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. While the government does not agree, there is little beyond restricting financial transactions that can be done.
If one of these offshore sites were to shut down overnight and take everyone’s bankroll, its customers would have no recourse.
Even if you could argue that these books are legal, they are a long way from being regulated in any practical sense.
Benefits of betting at legal, regulated sportsbooks
If you are in a state that regulates betting, there is no need to risk betting offshore.
You’ll find there are several additional reasons that legal sportsbooks are better than the offshore operators. Here are the key benefits:
- Safety: If you are betting offshore and your money goes missing, there will be no one available to help you. With regulated books, each state will have its licensing body. Examples are the NJDGE and Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB). These divisions have strict licensing requirements and provide an avenue for complaint if for unfair treatment. With big brand names with reputations worth protecting behind the legal sportsbooks, your chances of having an issue are small.
- Mainstream deposit methods: If you don’t want to wire money to a mysterious individual on a Caribbean island, then you should choose legal sportsbooks. You can expect deposit options to include bank transfers (via ACH or bill pay), PayPal, Visa or Mastercard credit cards, or even cash at your local casino’s cage. Many of these deposit options have built-in consumer protection.
- Responsible gambling: Legal sportsbooks have controls that protect minors and problem gamblers. Even those of us that gamble responsibly will appreciate this feature. Having tools like deposit limits, time-out and self-exclusion, as well as links to local charities that assist with issues is an essential benefit of legal sportsbooks.
- Quality of platforms and access methods: Regulated sportsbooks are partnerships between local casinos and global technology partners. For example, brands like FanDuel, 888 Sports and Scientific Games run in-state sportsbooks. The local venues then brand these. These partnerships not only give you the best software that includes features like in-play (live) betting, it gives you access to Apple and Android apps, too. When you compare these to the offshore books, you’ll find the offshore platforms are a decade out of date.
- Promotions and bonuses: Legal sportsbooks work in competitive markets. You can benefit from this by taking advantage of better promotions and bonus offers than at offshore books, including a plethora of free bet bonuses. Almost all regulated sportsbooks either give you money up front, a no-lose first bet or free bets based on your first wager. These are often followed up with matched bonuses, promotions like parlay insurance, contests and more.
Issues with offshore sports betting sites
When it comes to the downside of unregulated sportsbooks, you’ll find more subtle reasons than a simple opposite of the good ones.
While the security of your money is the biggest single issue, there are a lot of smaller problems, too. These include a list of potential problems with payment processing, software platforms and the type of bets you can make.
Banks and financial networks can’t knowingly transact with offshore gambling sites. These transactions can lead to a game of cat and mouse, with those books desperately trying to get credit card payments to process. The payments will succeed most of the time (though it comes at a cost to the sportsbooks, which they pass on to bettors in one form or another).
The drawback is that you’ll never know when your credit card payment will get through. Can you imagine missing out a great bet because your offshore sportsbook couldn’t accept your deposit that day?
Alternative payment options are available. Although cryptocurrency is common, it exposes bettors to volatility in values. Bitcoin and other coins also require several steps to set up a wallet, exchange dollars for coins (and then back again).
Some other payment issues involving the risk of “trapped bankrolls.” Since it is expensive for the offshore sportsbooks to process payments, they have higher minimums than regulated books. If you enjoy smaller bets, you might find bankrolls of $100, or even more, stuck on the site as your balance is lower than the minimum withdrawal amount. While many offshore books allow one cash out per month via a paper check for free, there are also steep admin fees at some outfits.
Both offshore and regulated sportsbooks use the three-column layout. This design puts a list of sports on the left, matches plus lines in the middle and the bet slip to the right.
The key difference with the offshore books is the lack of functionality beyond that. These books are often 10 years behind the curve compared to the tech giants Bet365 and 888.
There are rarely dedicated apps offshore. Navigating through the interface can be a frustrating experience. While there are some better sites offshore, you’ll quickly find that the best of them don’t compare to the most basic legal books.
Types of bet
The most obvious omission from the offshore books is live betting.
Also known as in-play betting, this system dynamically updates the odds in real-time, letting you bet while a match is underway. Regulated sportsbooks rely on global services, such as Kambi, to provide these live odds; however, offshore books don’t have this access.
Offshore books also can’t offer cash-out betting, period betting for many sports and the range of props available at legal sportsbooks.
Who regulates offshore sites?
The regulation of offshore sportsbooks is hands-off.
While each book is licensed, the chance of an involved licensing jurisdiction in a dispute is minimal. There are a lot of places offshore sportsbooks find licenses.
Here are the most popular:
- Curacao: This Caribbean nation used to be known as the Netherlands Antilles. They have been licensing sportsbooks, casinos and poker rooms for decades. As you will see from the history of offshore sportsbooks below, many of the scandals came from books licensed here.
- Antigua and Barbuda: This nation is notable for instigating a complaint against the US at the World Trade Organization. They stated that the government was unfairly restricting free trade by stopping financial transactions to their legal sportsbooks.
- Costa Rica: Several offshore sportsbooks have claimed to be licensed by this Central American nation over the years. However, there is no official licensing body here. The claim is usually made by companies that simply hold a business license in Costa Rica.
- Panama: This Central American tax haven has been home to big offshore sports betting brands since the days of telephone wagering. Once again, there is no official body to complain to should you have an issue with a Panama-“licensed” book.
- Kahnawake: This tribal reserve inside Canada was involved with licensing gambling sites for many years. Run by the Morris Mohawk tribe, this sovereign nation hosts many of the servers that power gambling sites for North America.
History of shady offshore bookmakers
In case the warnings above still leave you tempted to stray into the gray, these cautionary tales should ensure you don’t take the risk.
Of course, sports betting scandals pre-date the internet by more than a century.
What we can learn from those scandals are their predictable elements. Betting sites, casinos and poker rooms from jurisdictions with little oversight are always involved.
It starts with complaints from bettors about late payments, denied (or voided) bonuses and a general lack of responsiveness from staff. Once late payments become the norm, it is rare for a site to recover.
As an online sportsbook’s reputation crashes, new deposit options fail, which creates a death spiral for the site.
Unregulated site warning signs
Here are the red flags to watch out for if you do bet at an unregulated site:
- Payment delays: If you experience a delay, or hear that other customers are experiencing them, then you should get your entire bankroll out as soon as possible. You should never deposit at a book that has a history of late payments.
- Voiding bonuses: Some offshore books void bonuses for obscure, petty reasons. While even offshore sites have a right to protect themselves against bonus abuse, voiding offers, including welcome bonuses and promotions that were taken in good faith, is a sign that all is not well with management.
- Lack of operating license: While licenses from offshore jurisdictions don’t offer you much in the way of protection should things go wrong, the complete lack of one is a massive red flag.
- Lack of deposit options: Offshore books do have problems with deposits (and will charge you for these in one way or another). If you only see one or two non-mainstream options, e.g., only Cryptocurrency or a little-known voucher system, then be wary.
- “Too good to be true” bonuses and promotions: Sure, sports betting is competitive, and bonuses are a great marketing tool. If you see bonuses that seem so big as to be unprofitable, then they probably are. These books might not be complete scams, though they will likely claw back that money by offering bad lines or adding “processing fees.”
- High minimum withdrawals or pay to withdraw: If you are a small stakes bettor, then having a minimum withdrawal as low as $200 could effectively trap your bankroll on a site. While most books will let you withdraw once a month for free, some will not. Look out for those sneaky $50 withdrawal fees. These can drain your profits quickly.
Biggest scandals over the years
Unfortunately, the gambling world has had no shortage of scandals throughout the years. Even if the organized criminal past of the industry is set aside, there are plenty of more recent examples of gambling companies acting dishonestly.
- World Sports Exchange
- WSEX was the first of many betting sites to falter during the first online gambling boom back in 2006. WSEX gambled that players would flock to a “no rake” poker site, and those players would provide enough liquidity for the sports-based areas to function. Unfortunately, payments to bettors became slower and slower, eventually stopping altogether. Many bettors lost their bankrolls.
- Black Friday
- The passing of the UIGEA in 2006 forced most of the big, reputable online gambling brands to leave the US. However, many continued to offer access from offshore sites, and thus set the stage for a harsh lesson on the risks of playing with gray market operators. In April 2011, the US Department of Justice seized domains of big sites, forcing them to halt operations–an event that came to be known in the poker community as “Black Friday.”
- Full Tilt
- One of those seized sites was Full Tilt Poker. Until the time of its seizure, Full Tilt was one of the most prominent poker sites and counted numerous big-name poker players as its official team. However, according to a September 2011 amendment to the Black Friday indictment, Full Tilt brass defrauded its client base for roughly $444 million. Well-known poker players Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson were two of the defendants named in the motion, though neither has been convicted of any wrongdoing to date.
More poker scandals
- Absolute Poker/Ultimate Bet
- Two more key exemplars of the sort of poor behavior that drove the government to enact Black Friday were the cheating scandals at sister sites Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet. Insiders at the corporate level for both sites used so-called “superuser” accounts to spy on the hole cards of many users. According to an independent investigation, these thieves stole roughly $20 million over the course of three years.
- Lock Poker
- More recently, there have been various cardrooms that have run into trouble and had to close shop. One of the more prominent examples of this phenomenon is Lock Poker, which finally ended service in 2016. The closure marked the end of a slow, malingering death that saw the site’s ownership honor fewer and fewer cashout requests from players. Although Lock does not suffer from allegations as severe as Full Tilt or Absolute Poker, the sin of refusing to cash out is an unforgivable one for the poker community.
- America’s Cardroom
- Perhaps the most recent cardroom to run aground is America’s Cardroom. We are only a year removed from poker forum TwoPlusTwo’s cessation of allowing ACR to advertise on the forum. 2+2 boss Mason Malmuth alleged that America’s Cardroom was failing on four fronts: late tournament registration, the usage of bots, the possible appearance of superusers (as seen in Full Tilt), and other trouble events that reeked of collusion. ACR famously or infamously paid no mind to repeated calls that it submit itself to regulators, and thus, more or less confirmed that shenanigans were underway.
The sad reality is that this list is neither exhaustive nor final. The lure of easy access to a pot of money will always draw bad actors towards gambling. There is an ever-growing list of gray market sports betting sites which have shut down or been declared rogue by monitoring sites.
We recommend that you steer clear offshore books and wait for legal and regulated sites to reach your state. This also applies to poker and casino players.
Wrapping it up: Regulated sports betting sites are best
Regulation for online sports betting is moving fast. After successful early adoption in NJ and PA, many more states will follow over the next couple of years. These sportsbooks combine local businesses with big global betting brands.
They not only bring you top-of-the-line platforms, but you’ll also receive a vast choice of lines and innovative types of bets like live and early cash-out bets.
Compare these options to offshore books, where you have little or no recourse when your bankroll goes missing, and you’ll see why the regulated books are the way to go.