Federal officials order banks to freeze millions in online poker winnings
On the Sunday before Memorial Day, David made the big time.
Winning $10,000 in an online poker tournament made him eligible for the upcoming World Series of Poker, the game's premier event, where hundreds of players — amateur and professional — descend on Las Vegas from around the world to play for a multimillion-dollar pot.
To register, he simply had to cash a check cut by a company that processed payments for the poker Web site Pokerstars.com and use the $10,000 to buy into the series.
When he went to cash the check from Account Services Wednesday, it bounced, he said.
What David, a 41-year-old from Virginia who spoke on the condition that ABC News use only his first name, initially thought was a glitch turned out to be part of an unprecedented government crackdown on online poker that affected some 27,000 people.
Late last week, the federal government ordered five banks to freeze a total of $30 million in payments owed to the players from companies that process payments from two offshore gambling sites, according to the Poker Players Alliance, a group that represents the interests of the companies and players.
"It's not like the government went after money that the site made, instead they seized money that belonged to me," David said. "There is no law that restricts citizens from recovering money."
According to the alliance, federal prosecutors working out of New York's Southern District ordered Citibank, Wells Fargo and three smaller banks to freeze funds in accounts belonging to Allied Systems and Account Services, companies that process funds for the poker sites.
Some affected players who gamble at the popular sites FullTiltPoker.com and PokerStars.com first realized they could not access funds in their accounts over the weekend when checks issued from the companies bounced.
Online poker, a $9 billion to $12 billion a year industry, is legally a gray area, experts told ABCNews.com. Washington is the only state with a law on its books that bans residents from playing on the Internet. The sites themselves, however, are not allowed to operate in the United States and are all registered overseas.
Online poker players alliance criticizes freezing of accounts
"There is no legal precedent for what the government is doing," said John Pappas, executive director of the alliance.
"We contend playing online poker is not unlawful. The government is going after the players' money, not the sites'. The fact is, there is no federal law against playing online poker," he said.
Though the government maintains that online gambling is illegal, the U.S. attorney's office in New York would not comment on the case or confirm an investigation was under way.
According to federal documents obtained by The Associated Press, a judge in the Southern District of New York issued a seizure warrant last week for an account at a Wells Fargo bank in San Francisco. The AP reported that the documents also showed that a federal prosecutor told a bank in Arizona to freeze an account.
In a letter dated Friday and faxed to Alliance Bank of Arizona, Arlo Devlin-Brown, the assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York said that accounts held by payment processor Allied Systems Inc. are subject to seizure and forfeiture "because they constitute property involved in money laundering transactions and illegal gambling offenses," according to the AP.
In another letter, Devlin-Brown asks that the bank treat the funds "as legally seized" by the FBI, saying that the government has probable cause that the gambling payments of U.S. residents had been directed to offshore illegal Internet gambling businesses, the AP reported.
A source at Citgroup familiar with the government request, however, confirmed the "bank has been contacted and is cooperating" with the authorities.
According to the alliance, the laws cited by prosecutors "appear to allege violations of the Wire Act and the Illegal Gambling Business Act" and not to a more recent piece of legislation on online gaming called the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.
Another player, Sam Friedman, a 24-year-old accountant in New York City who plays every night in tournaments on FullTiltPoker.com, said he realized the company had last week removed an option to deposit winnings directly into his Citibank account.
Internet poker players say feds are 'Reaching into people's bank accounts'
"There are lots of ways to deposit and withdraw money and payment options are always disappearing, but something didn't seem right," Friedman said.
"I can't believe the government is reaching into people's bank accounts like this," he said. "For a lot of serious players this is their lifeblood. This is how they make ends meet."
Both FullTiltPoker.com and PokerStars.com have reimbursed players who tried to cash out and were unable to.
"In light of recent events involving the freezing of certain accounts, Full Tilt Poker would like to assure all players that their funds remain safe and secure," spokeswoman Michelle Clayborn said in a statement.
"All players who were affected by the current situation have had their funds returned to their accounts," the statement said. David, the World Series hopeful, said he had been reimbursed by PokerStars and given an additional 10 percent credit.
He used his own savings to buy into the World Series and will use the winnings from his championship game online to pay himself back as soon as he gets them, he said.