Legal Online Gambling States Take Notice As Offshore Sites Rise In Google Searches

Written By Katarina Vojvodic on February 8, 2024
Cursor Moves Over Google's Search Engine Page

Online gambling has quickly expanded in the US in the past two decades, with more than 25 states (and Washington DC) allowing legal online sports betting. So far, there are just six states that allow online casinos (Rhode Island is expected to launch this spring):

  • New Jersey
  • Pennsylvania
  • Michigan
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • West Virginia

Players with no legal online gambling options usually choose between the two options:

  1. They either place an (illegal) online bet using casino sites in the neighboring legal, regulated states
  2. Or they opt for offshore casino sites targeting US players and other gamers from all over the world.

While federal laws say offshore sportsbooks are illegal in the US, not all the players within the country are aware of the fact they’re gambling illegally. However, some players know this and still choose to use offshore sites, as such sites tend to include generous bonus offers.

Mature gambling states like Michigan remain willing to help the US Department of Justice (DOJ) pursue enforcement of US laws against offshore illegal gaming companies targeting US citizens. But laws don’t mean much without the proper enforcement.

Illegal gambling sites show up at the top of players’ Google search

When doing research, most players tend to rely on sources like online reviews to gather information regarding gambling sites before placing a bet. In doing so, they can land on online gambling affiliate websites offering a plethora of casinos and games, reviews, as well as promotions. Among the selection, players can easily find casino sites that operate illegally.

Or, if players don’t consult an affiliate website and its reviews, they land directly at an offshore casino site because Google “suggested” it. One such example is Bovada and its partner Bodog.

This happens because there is an enormous demand among US players, who intentionally look for such games and gaming destinations. Players often type in terms like “best online casino US,” “best US casino games,” or “trusted casino and sportsbook,” which lead them to offshore gaming sites that appear at the top of their search results (SERPs).

It is important to emphasize that those sites appearing at the top of the SERPs are not promoted by Google. Google pointing to offshore sites isn’t illegal either, as it isn’t up to Google to inform people on what is legal in their area. Some of these offshore casinos, social sportsbooks, or sweepstakes casinos, like Fliff, even stress out publicly:

“Apple and Google are not sponsors of, responsible for conducting, or involved with the sweepstakes in any manner.”

PlayUSA reached out to Google for a comment but received no response.

Why it’s important to avoid illegal casino sites and how to spot them

An illegal online casino site doesn’t have proper licensing and regulation; therefore, local government agencies do not monitor it. There’s no guarantee of fair odds or payouts, nor do illegal sites provide consumer protections or responsible gaming measures.

So, if anything goes wrong, there will be no regulatory body to turn to for help.

As mentioned above, real-money online casinos have only launched in six states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Connecticut, Delaware and West Virginia. If you reside outside these states and wish to bet online, you would be gambling illegally.

If you live in any of these states, and you want to be sure an online casino is legal, you can look for a few signs on their website:

  • Check if the casino has the badge of a state gambling agency, and the “Responsible Gaming” badge, which is a requirement for all legal gambling sites
  • Check the government agency site to see if the online casino in question is listed among legal online casinos currently operating in the state

Some of the most appealing offshore iGaming sites offering services and targeting US players (or any individual outside of the US) are licensed and based overseas in places like Curacao, Gibraltar, or Malta.

While players who have used or still use illegal gambling sites won’t be in legal trouble, it is unlawful for an operator to offer products or services without a proper license in any state with legalized gambling.

What regulators do to educate players on illegal gambling sites

Even in legal US online casino states, offshore casino sites (i.e., Bovada) rank highly in Google’s SERPs. Such examples are New Jersey, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board does not possess law enforcement authority. Therefore, the state Attorney General’s Office would more likely handle any investigation or action on an offshore site as such.

Doug Harbach, communications director of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board told PlayUSA in an email:

“The Gaming Control Board does endorse the Bettor Safe program that was begun by GeoComply. This provides us with an opportunity to message to consumers the issues with illegal gambling sites.”

GeoComply initiated the general Bettor Safe program and a PA-dedicated PA Safe program.

The Michigan Gaming Control Board (MGCB) told PlayUSA:

“While Michigan has strict laws and rules that govern internet gaming and sports betting and provide consumer protections, the MGCB remains willing to help the US Department of Justice as it pursues enforcement of US laws against offshore illegal gaming enterprises that take advantage of our citizens. As a regulatory agency, we strive to ensure the conduct of fair and honest gaming to protect the interests of the citizens of the state of Michigan.”

Michigan players can find a list of authorized, licensed online casino providers and sports betting operators on the Internet Gaming and Fantasy Contests MGCB page.

“The MGCB has always been committed to tackling the issue of illegal gambling and frequently reminds the public that they are encouraged to contact the agency with tips of suspected illegal gambling. We take every tip seriously.”

If a Michigan citizen suspects participating in an illegal game, they should consider reporting it to the MGCB as an illegal or suspicious gambling activity. They can share information by one of three means:

  1. Calling 1-888-314-2682, a dedicated phone line for anonymous tips
  2. Sending an email to [email protected]
  3. Submitting a form on the MGCB website to report tips anonymously

Michigan joins the initiative to crack down on offshore gambling sites

In May last year, the Michigan Gaming Control Board joined several other gaming states to urge the US Department of Justice to prioritize combating illegal offshore sportsbooks and online casinos. Other state regulators signing the letter are:

  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • New Jersey
  • Nevada

With his fellow state regulators, MGCB Executive Director Henry Williams asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to address the significant threats offshore illegal gambling poses that state regulators cannot tackle alone. State regulators wanted the DOJ to start the investigation and prosecution of illegal gaming sites that target domestic players.

As the MGCB told PlayUSA in an email, illegal gaming, as a whole, is a matter of concern for the MGCB because it:

  • “Creates an environment that is ripe for exploitation and criminal activity. Without proper oversight, there is an increased risk of money laundering fraud and the potential involvement of individuals associated with organized crime.
  • Leaves MI citizens vulnerable. Because these websites are unregulated, players have no recourse against risks like fraud, having any winnings withheld, or identity theft.
  • Results in a loss of state revenue. Illegal gaming operations result in a loss of state revenue because operators running them are not reporting earnings or paying taxes.”

AGA supported the initiative

Along with 26 co-signers, the American Gaming Association and some major sports leagues — the NFL, MLB, NHL and PGA Tour — also sent the letter to Garland.

Megan Bennett, an intergovernmental liaison at the DOJ, said the office will use necessary resources to combat illegal gambling issues:

“The Department appreciates the adverse impact illegal gaming has on individuals and communities and will continue to use all available tools to detect, investigate, and prosecute such illegal activity.”

According to the AGA, US citizens gamble over $510.9 billion through illegal gambling websites every year. That means the states are missing roughly $13 billion in tax revenue.

While the AGA is optimistic that the DOJ will take action, many gaming experts doubt any action against offshore sites will be taken.

What will it take to end the fight against illegal gambling companies?

Closing illegal online gambling businesses is not entirely out of the question but comes with many difficulties and daunting regulation efforts.

While, in theory, authorities may find a way to block payments to illegal operators done through third-party payment providers, it isn’t easy to do this in practice.

Payment blocking isn’t used as an instrument in the fight against offshore gambling sites, as it could require a prolonged court process. Plus, these illegal businesses made sure they were almost impossible to track as they hide their servers using various systems.

But there is still a reason to be optimistic. Sweden has set an excellent example for other countries. It announced an initiative requiring payment providers to reveal information used in transmitting wagers placed or winnings scored from an illegal gambling site.

And while the US has state and federal laws in place, as the AGA stressed, illegal operators continue to violate those laws by openly marketing their service and rising on top of players’ searches. And while several state regulators called for a crackdown, it seems like there has to be a stronger initiative or prioritization of prosecutions to protect the legal market better.

Katarina Vojvodic Avatar
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Katarina Vojvodic

Katarina Vojvodic is a lead writer for PlayUSA who lives in Toronto. Vojvodic provides coverage of the US gambling industry with a focus on US online casinos. Previously, she covered Ontario’s online gambling industry for PlayCanada.com. Vojvodic holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Belgrade. Outside working hours, she can be found near the water with her husband and their two kids.

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