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Illegal gambling websites continue to prey on trusting players

Updated April 17, 2023 - 7:47 pm

For years, the American Gaming Association has encouraged the public to bet responsibly with licensed operators and to avoid illegal offshore websites.

The AGA stepped up its advocacy in the past year and made it one of the organization’s highest priorities.

It’s advice a Canadian gambler, Victor Janicki, now wishes he would have taken. Janicki, a retired attorney from Kelowna, British Columbia, has been trying for months to collect on a $225,000 jackpot he won while playing a blackjack side bet on BetOnLine.ag, an internet domain in Antigua.

Janicki, who has played on BetOnLine for years, was betting $40 a hand with the site’s BJ Classic Game, which also offers a $1-per-hand side bet called 777 Diamond Jackpot. It offers a huge progressive payout when the player is dealt three sevens of diamonds using a six-deck shoe.


“I got dealt two sevens of diamonds, and I asked for a card,” Janicki said in a phone interview. “Then, my screen went black for about 10 seconds, which was the first time that has ever happened to me. But when the screen came back on, two supervisors besides the dealer congratulated me for winning the jackpot. So I had a table chat with them to find out how I was to be paid.”

It didn’t take long for Janicki to figure out he wasn’t going to get his money.

He was told that there was a mistake and that he didn’t win — even after he was congratulated by the two supervisors.

He then tried to get a copy of the video of his play from the company. When that was unsuccessful, he resorted to contacting others, including competitors of BetOnLine, for help.

My efforts to contact BetOnLine were unsuccessful.

A frequent problem

For Casey Clark, senior vice president at the American Gaming Association, Janicki’s story is something he sees often — he receives correspondence from frustrated players, on average, about once a week.

“It’s a massive problem that we’ve made our No. 1 priority, and it’s going to continue that way for a long time,” Clark said.

He noted that the AGA has several resources to help consumers determine whether a gaming site is legitimate. One tip-off is the internet domain. He noted that .lv is more likely a domain in Latvia, not Las Vegas.

“The recourse in the U.S. is they should reach out to the FBI and submit their complaint that there’s been an offshore operator taking their money illegally in the United States,” he said. “I do sympathize that they lost their money, but I don’t know that they should expect to be getting any of that money back, just as there would be no expectation of that if they’re engaging in other illicit operators in any kind of vertical, whether it’s gaming or something else. What’s the recourse if you buy a knock-off iPhone that doesn’t work? Consumers need to be aware and vigilant.”

The online blackjack game falls under the category of iGaming, or online internet gambling. It’s legal in only six U.S. states: Delaware, New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and — for online poker only — Nevada.

Clark said New Hampshire is very close to its governor signing iGaming legislation in the state.

Online sports betting

The rapid expansion of sports wagering has made the landscape even more complicated because every state has a different set of rules and regulations. Many offer mobile wagering on sports, allowing players to bet from their mobile devices within the borders of the states they’re in. Some players have the mistaken impression that they can bet with some national brands such as FanDuel and DraftKings in Nevada, but they can’t because the companies aren’t licensed in the state.

In November, the AGA issued a report that estimated the illegal iGaming market in the U.S. collects $13.5 billion a year, nearly three times more than the legal U.S. market of $5 billion in revenue in 2022. The AGA also found that nearly half of Americans, 48 percent, have played online slots or table games illegally.

The AGA’s American Attitudes study published in September found that 89 percent of past-year sports bettors and 84 percent of past-year iGamers say it is very or somewhat important to play with a legal regulated operator.

The Justice Department generally doesn’t go after those who play illegally. It’s more interested in tracking down and busting the illegal operators, which they only do when company executives are on U.S. soil.

Janicki was never too worried about it because Canada operates under different rules. He said as a Canadian, he felt he could play online wherever he wanted.

Paul Burns, president and CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association, said Canada gaming law is somewhat vague because “gray-market” sites have been allowed to be licensed in the province of Ontario. While around 45 companies have registered there, BetOnLine is not among them.

“It’s unfortunate that it happened and that Canadians have had access to these sites, playing for years without issue, and then these kinds of things happen,” Burns said.

He said because there’s no case law in Canada, it’s difficult to advise a player on what to do. He said he has heard of instances where online gaming works for players that have connected with sites in the United Kingdom, Isle of Man and Malta, but that it seems to be more problematic with Caribbean and Latin American outlets.

BetOnLine called out

Clark also said BetOnLine was called out by name in an AGA letter sent a year ago to Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking the Justice Department to aggressively pursue prosecuting illegal operators to protect American consumers.

For Janicki and other players like him, the outlook doesn’t look good for recovering the money they believe is owed to them. But he feels his story could help others.

“I am not going to just sit back as a silent victim,” he said. “It is my duty to prevent other players from being cheated.”

And it’s the duty of every person who plays online to know exactly with whom they’re playing and to stay away from those operating illegally.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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