Poker websites to pay $731 mn in US settlement

Two online poker sites have agreed to pay $731 million in a settlement of a US probe that will compensate consumers who claimed they were defrauded in online games, officials said Tuesday.

The deal announced by the US Justice Department also allows PokerStars, a British-registered firm believed to operate the largest online card gaming site, to acquire the assets of Irish-based Full Tilt Poker.

The agreement approved by a federal judge settles investigations by US officials into money laundering and related charges.

US authorities had alleged that Full Tilt Poker stole some $440 million from players around the world in a Ponzi scheme used to pay lavish fees to board members, and failed to maintain sufficient funds to pay prizes.

PokerStars and another firm, Absolute Poker, had been accused of bank fraud, money laundering, illegal gambling and other offenses.

In the deal approved Tuesday, Full Tilt agreed to forfeit virtually all of its assets to the US government.

PokerStars agreed to forfeit $547 million to the US and to reimburse the some $184 million owed by Full Tilt to online players.

The deal also allows PokerStars to acquire the forfeited Full Tilt assets from the US government.

Consumers who claim they were defrauded will be able to seek compensation from the $547 million.

"We are pleased to announce these settlements by Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars, which allow us to quickly get significant compensation into the victim players' hands," US Attorney Preet Bharara said.

"Today's settlements demonstrate that if you engage in conduct that violates the laws of the United States, as we alleged in this case, then even if you are doing so from across the ocean, you will have to answer for that conduct and turn over your ill-gotten gains."

While Internet gambling has been illegal in the United States since 2006, online poker remains a multibillion-dollar industry with companies using a variety of ways to flout the law, including locating their operations offshore.

According to US officials, the companies arranged for money received from US gamblers to be disguised as payments to non-existent websites purporting to sell merchandise such as jewelry and golf balls.

On July 3, US authorities said they arrested Raymond Bitar, the head of Full Tilt Poker and charged him with a scheme to defraud banks and misleading customers about the security of their funds.

He had been charged last year with gambling, bank fraud, and money laundering offenses.

Bitar said in an email to employees that was posted on an online betting forum that he had "returned to the US to deal with civil and criminal case that are pending against me in New York" and to allow a deal to transfer the assets of the group to PokerStars.

The charges against the betting site and several others were first announced in April 2011.

Under Tuesday's settlement, Bitar and others facing charges in the US are prohibited from serving in the management of PokerStars, and the firm is barred from offering gambling in the US as long as it remains illegal.

US authorities also filed a motion in court against Absolute Poker that would require the company to forfeit all of its assets "in order to fully resolve this action."

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