Is it legal to run a gambling website, or advertise for it, in the U.S.?
Last Update: September 2020
This article has nothing to do with whether it's legal for
players to gamble online.
For that, see my separate article, Is online gambling legal?
For affiliates specifically, see my separate article, it legal to run a casino affiliate website?
Rather than just considering the
law, it's more useful to look at the potential
risk of each activity. That
is, which activities are more likely to result in a fine or maybe
even jail time? Below is my take on how things stack up, from
most risky to least risky. But first, some
- The law and the enforcement are constantly changing, and what's true today could be different tomorrow.
- I don't guarantee to have heard of every relevant case.
- I'm a layperson, not a lawyer, and god help you if you rely on this article instead of seeking appropriate legal counsel for your situation.
With that in mind, here's my analysis of
||Taking sports bets on a server located in the U.S.||Taking
sports bets on a U.S. server is the most clearly illegal
activity, and as a result, probably no one has ever risked
|Taking sports bets over U.S. phone lines.||BetOnSports (2006, prison); Bodog (2012, pending)|
| Taking sports bets on a foreign server.
||• 5Dimes (2020)
• Bodog (2012)
• Sportingbet (2006)
• World Sports Exchange (2000; prison)
(details on above cases)
| Facilitating the transfer of funds to
online casinos (payment processors), and then visiting the
||• Processors serving
FullTilt, PokerStars, Absolute Poker, & UltimateBet
• eWalletXpress (2010)
• Douglas Rennick of Canada (2010)
• Ahmad Khawaja and Allied Wallet (2009)
• Neteller (2007)
(details on above cases)
|Accepting advertising for Internet gambling, in the major media||• Google, Yahoo, Microsoft,
The Sporting News (2003)
• Esquire (2005) (more on these cases)
||Helping people make bets on a website||InternationalNetCasino (2004) (action
by the State of New Jersey; more)
|3||Buying advertising in a U.S. publication as an online casino, poker room, or affiliate||No legal troubles that we know of for this activity, but that's partially due to the fact that almost nobody is tempting fate by doing this. I would expect scrutiny if that happened (same as what happened when sportsbooks bought advertising).|
|3||Running a gambling website as an affiliate||Some state laws say that anyone who participates in the profit of a gambling operator is guilty of a crime. Rev-share agreements would seem to meet that definition. Also, advertising in general could be considered "promotion" or "encouragement" which is illegal under some state laws. On the other hand, there's only been one case that I know of. (more)|
||Taking casino/poker bets online||The feds keep changing their minds about
whether the Wire Act applies to casino/poker as well as
sports. As of 2019, the act isn't being enforced
against casino/poker operators, but that could change. (more...)
They did carry out these prosecutions:
• FullTilt Poker, PokerStars, Absolute Poker (2011)
• Party Gaming (2008)
|2||Accepting advertising for Internet gambling, in friendly state, and not as a revshare affiliate||Whether advertising a casino could be considered a crime varies state by state, and in most cases it's not crystal clear, it depends how a prosecutor interprets the law. Risk Level 3 (above) is for states whose laws make it easier to tie an affiliate to a crime, and Risk Level 2 (here) is for states where it would be harder. Also, receiving ad money as a flat monthly amount or on a CPA basis would also be safer than revshare.|
||Placing bets yourself on the Internet||Not against federal law. Technically
against the law in several states, but prosecution is rare
and penalties are usually minor. (See Is
online gambling legal?.)
Taking bets on a server located in the U.S. (Risk Level: 5)
Outside of the handful of states where online gambling has specifically been legalized, taking bets (i.e., operating a casino, sportsbook, or racebook) on a website whose servers are located in the U.S. is assumed to be illegal, and nobody does this in the U.S. for that reason. All such websites are located in other countries where it's legal for them to operate. (Many of them, like Bovada, also accept most U.S. players, even from the states with anti-gambling laws.)
Taking sporting bets over the phone lines is clearly illegal thanks to the Wire Act.
BetOnSports not only took bets over the phone, it was blatant about it, buying big billboards in the U.S. advertising their phone number. BoS was also really big potatoes, taking in $4.6 billion wagers from 2001 to 2005. In July 2006, then-CEO David Carruthers was arrested while changing planes in Texas on the way to Costa Rica from the U.K. In April 2009 he pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges, and in January 2010 was sentenced to 33 months in prison. The company's founder, Gary Kaplan, was arrested in the Puerto Rico in March 2007 and in November 2009 was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to forfeit $44 million in revenue. (He was reportedly released in Oct. 2011, according to Gambling911.) Kaplan's brother and sister pleaded guilty in June 2009 to two felony conspiracy charges and agreed to turn over more than $6 million held in Swiss bank accounts. They were also sentenced to 10 months of house arrest. In December 2009, the company itself was fined $28.2 million. (GPWA, USA Today, The Register)
Most observers agree that the Wire Act applies to online sports betting, not just telephone bets. The feds sure think so.
5Dimes (2020). Costa Rica-based sportsbook 5Dimes was fined $47M by the U.S. government. No one got jail time. (ESPN)
Bodog (2012). In February 2012, the
feds indicted Calvin Ayre, founder of Bodog, along with three other
Canadians, James Philip, David Ferguson and Derrick Maloney.
Ayre et al. were charged with running an online sports gambling
business, and money laundering, with the former carrying a possible
sentence of five years. The feds also seized the Bodog.com
domain, which didn't matter much, since Bodog had been smart enough
to move its business to other domains (like Bodog.eu) months before
the feds' seizure. (Forbes,
2012) Update 2017: Ayre plead guilty to a
mere misdemeanor and the feds dropped the felony charges, and gave
the Bodog.com domain back. Ayre never spent a night in jail.
Small operators (2011). In May 2011, the feds issued indictments against some small companies taking sports bets online. It also seized their domain names. (Casino City)
Sportingbet (2006). While federal law is murky, some new state laws are not. In September 2006, the chairman of London-based Sportingbet was arrested in New York by the request of Louisiana authorities for violating Louisiana's ban on Internet gambling. One wonders why Peter Dicks thought it would be a good idea for a chairman of a UK-based Internet gambling operation to visit the U.S. right after the CEO of another UK-based Internet gambling operation just got arrested after visiting the U.S. (David Carruthers of BetOnSports, above). Perhaps he thought he'd be safe because unlike BetOnSports, Sportingbet wasn't pushing the envelope on phone-based bets. He also probably had no idea that an individual U.S. state would consider his company to be breaking the law and would have him arrested over it. (iGamingNews)
World Sports Exchange (2000). American Jay Cohen located his sportsbook offshore in Antigua, but when he returned to the U.S. he was arrested, and in 2000 he was convicted, fined $5000, and sentenced to 21 months in prison, of which he served 17. (NY Times, Gambling 911) In January 2016, his business partner, Haden Ware, returned to the U.S. from Antigua to surrender (he'd been a fugitive since 2002), pleaded guilty, and was sentenced to only six months probation. (AP, SBR)
Facilitating the transfer of funds to online gambling operators (payment processing) whether in the U.S. or not. (Risk Level: 5)
A payment processor is a company that helps players deposit money into an online casino, or get a payout (withdrawal) from the casino. These days players and casinos use Bitcoin, which is largely unregulated and largely untraceable. Before Bitcoin, casinos had a hard time getting player money and out of the casinos because most banks don't want to touch online gambling money. So, players and casinos used payment processors to move the money.
A popular processor was Neteller,
which is kind of like PayPal. But in January 2007
the founders of Neteller were arrested in the U.S. and charged with
money laundering. (Creator.com)
A few days later Neteller stopped serving U.S. customers. (iGamingNews,
) Neteller eventually
paid a big fine and agreed to stop serving U.S. customers.
At least in some of these cases, it seems that handling the payments wasn't illegal, it was lying about it. When you lie to your bank about what you're using your account for, that's bank fraud. On the other hand, if you're up front that you're moving online gambling money, the bank won't let you open an account. So, payment processors lied about their intent, and that's often what they got busted for.
- In January 2011 the feds seized nearly $8
million from processors serving PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker,
Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker. (Forbes)
One processor, Ira Rubin, was sentenced to three years. (ESPN)
Another, Bradley Franzen pleaded guilty in May 2011, (Forbes)
though as of Nov. 2015, I can't find any report of whether
he was actually sentenced. Absolute Poker co-founder Brent
Buckley was sentenced to 14 months for defrauding banks. (iGamingBusiness)
The whole case is explained in detail on Wikipedia.
- Douglas Rennick who ran a Canadian-based processor was arrested in 2010, forfeited $17 million, but didn't get any jail time. (Bloomberg, Online-Casinos, Best Poker Sites)
- In November 2010 feds seized money in accounts belonging to payment processor eWalletXpress. The company was forced out of the U.S. market. (Casino City)
- Daniel Tzvetkoff (founder) and Andrew Thornhill of the payment processor Intabill were charged with conspiracy, money laundering, and bank fraud in 2010. Thornhill pleaded guilty in June and in October was sentenced to three months in prison and fined $25,000. (Pepper Hamilton LLP)
- The Feds seized $13 million from Ahmad Khawaja and Allied Wallet in 2009. (Forbes)
- Some smaller actions in 2008-2011 are listed at Pepper Hamilton.
Accepting advertising for Internet gambling, in the major media (Risk Level: 5)
Publishing advertisements for online gambling isn't specifically
illegal, and it would be quite a stretch to make a case under
a different statute (like accessory
and abetting). To my knowledge, small publishers (like
me) have never faced fed action running ads for online
gambling. The only publishers to face penalties were some huge
publishers (Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, in 2007), and a mid-size
publisher in 2006 (The Sporting News). I wish they had
contested the charges, since legal observers say they weren't
breaking any law, but each simply paid a fine to end the matter
quickly. None ever faced any criminal charges. The Sporting
News' fine was equal to the money they'd collected from gambling
ads. Google's penalty was less than half a single day's profit for
Other publishers who took ads (like Esquire, who ran Bodog's poker
ads) were warned by the DoJ not to take them any more, stopped doing
so, and faced no penalties. Below are the details on the
Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, The Sporting News (2003-2007). In 2003 the U.S. Dept. of Justice sent a letter (PDF) to the National Association of Broadcasters and to Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, The Sporting News, warning them that accepting ads for online gambling could be illegal. So they all stopped accepting ads. In reality, it doesn't appear that taking ads for casino & poker is illegal at all, since online casino & poker themselves aren't illegal. Only the ads for online sportsbetting would have been clearly illegal. But all those warned stopped running the gambling ads anyway.
The Sporting News (TSN) took its time in stopping the ads (six months), which pissed off the government, which three years later fined them $7.2 million, in January 2006. The settlement represents TSN's profits on the ads for the three years it accepted them (2000-2003), and was paid with $4.2 million in cash, and $3 million in public service ads in its own publications explaining how online gambling is illegal. (more from the Corporate Crime Reporter)
In December 2007 the three big Internet giants paid a fine for accepting ads for online gaming. Google's fine was only about a third of a single day's profit. (Point-Spreads.com)
The three companies had actually ceased taking online gambling ads about four years before the settlement, when they got the warning, but the feds fined them anyway -- years later.
Esquire, 2005. In April 2005 the feds subpoenaed Esquire magazine for taking ads in its March issue for online poker operator Bodog.
The Dot-Net Workaround. Many online operators found a way around ad restrictions years ago: They advertise the .net version of their website, which is a play-for-free space. Of course, they're hoping that players will click from there over to the .com version and wager for real money, or that players will just type in .com out of habit. (NY Post)
The webmaster of the portal InternationalNetCasino.com was indicted
by New Jersey authorities in Nov. 2004 for facilitating
gambling. The affiliate apparently took money from would-be
players directly in order to help them place bets. It seems
that if he had simply advertised the gambling operations and not
gotten directly involved he probably would have been okay.
Even so, his sentence was light: the eight days he'd already served
in jail, $1330 in fines, and 90 days of community service. (iGamingNews)
Buying advertising as a casino, poker room, or affiliate (Risk Level: 3)
The only buyers of magazine/TV advertising who have been targeted have been offshore sportsbooks, not casino or poker operators. Then again, that's probably because casino and poker operators have largely avoided buying prominent advertising. If their ads started popping up in major magazines and on TV, I'd expect there to be scrutiny.
Bodog did buy ads in Esquire magazine in 2005, but the DoJ waved its finger at Esquire for taking the ads, not at Bodog for buying them.
Online casinos' main form of advertising is to pay webmasters (like me) to advertise them. That practice is widespread and no ad buyer has faced any legal action about that to my knowledge.
Running a website as an affiliate (Risk Level: 3)
The laws of some states make it easy to charge an affiliate with a crime (which would suggest Risk Level 5), but I was able to dig up only one case in which that actually happened, and even then the affiliate apparently got no jail time (which suggests Risk Level 1). I'm averaging the clear criminality combined with lack of prosecution and calling it Risk Level 3.
This is a pretty big topic so I cover the details in
a separate article.
Taking casino/poker bets online (Risk Level: 3)
The feds have gone back-and-forth several times about whether the Wire Act applies to taking casino/poker bets as well as sports bets. As of late 2019, the feds say they're not prosecuting casino/poker sites under the Wire Act...for now. (more on the Wire Act history/reversals)
Doyles Room (2011, poker). Feds seized the domain DoylesRoom.com. (CasinoCity)
PokerStars, Absolute Poker (2011, poker). Feds seized
the domain names of these three online poker sites on April 15,
2011, and charged 11 individuals with bank fraud, illegal gambling
and laundering billions of dollars. (PokerListings)
this wasn't just about online gamblingFullTilt is alleged to have
not kept players' money in segregated accounts like they were
supposed to, and in fact its operators embezzled millions of dollars
in player funds, and thus was unable to repay players in full when
the government shut them down. Of course, this is why people
such as myself are saying that online gambling should be legalized
and regulated to protect the players.
Another controversial aspect of this
case is that the feds seized the .com domain names of the poker
rooms in question, which they clearly had no right to do, since they
didn't have that kind of jurisdiction -- nobody does, since domain
names are international. As attorney Nelson Rose said, "The
next to step through could be an Islamic country, which outlaws
alcohol, seizing the worldwide domain names of every retailer and
restaurant that advertises beer or wine." (Casino
Note that the feds didn't seize the domains at the registrar level, they went straight to the .com registry, which happens to be located in the U.S. So companies who think they can shield themselves by registering their dot-coms with foreign registrars are quite mistaken.
In July 2012, Full Tilt CEO Ray
Bitar was arrested for the April 2011 indictment. (GPWA)
faces the potential of life in prison. The same month, Brent
Beckley, an owner of Absolute Poker, got a 14-month sentence for
deceiving banks about the nature of his company's transactions. (Reuters)
(Note the technicality they got him on: Not charged with
running an online gambling site, but rather charged with misleading
banks about the transactions. It's the moving the money
through the banks that's illegal.)
Party Gaming (2008, poker). In December 2008 Party Gaming co-founder Anurang Dikshit pleaded guilty to violating the 1961 Wire Act with his poker site (even though the Wire Act doesn't apply to poker) forfeited $300 million, and was sentenced to one year of probation -- avoiding jail time. It's a sad world when you're forced to plead guilty to breaking a law that doesn't exist. (Forbes) In April 2009, Party Gaming itself agreed to $105 million to avoid prosecution. (GPWA)
Selling ads for online casinos on a website (Risk Level: 2)
The risk of taking ads for online casinos varies based on
various factors. In general I peg the risk at Level
3 (above). Things that could potentially reduce the risk are
not doing rev-share, locating in a state or country with friendlier
laws, and not encouraging readers to gamble at the advertiser.
This is a big topic, so I have a separate
article about it.
Making bets on the internet (as a player) (Risk Level: 1)
For players, see my article: Is online gambling legal? But in summary:
- There's no federal law against online gambling.
- Most states outlaw gambling, which applies equally to online and offline, but enforcement is rare (how are they gonna know?), and penalties are usually slight.
- Online gambling has been legalized in a tiny handful of states.