Regulators in New Jersey want to crack down on illegal gambling sites operating offshore.
Speaking with Gambling Compliance (paywall) this week, David Rebuck said that those involved in illegal operations will be denied licensure and driven out of the state.
Rebuck is the director of the NJ Division of Gaming Enforcement, which has regulated NJ online gambling since 2013. His gripe with offshore sites dates back to the start, but his comments are fresh again under the context of legal NJ sports betting.
What are NJ regulators saying?
Rebuck cited Bovada specifically, but there are likely hundreds of offshore gambling sites available to US customers. His ire would extend to any current or prospective licensee who is sidestepping the law of any jurisdiction; it could pertain to those who simply promote offshore gambling operations, as well.
“If we find out that those who provide goods and services to the legal market … are engaged in contracts or underhanded work to have their products provided to the illegal market,” Rebuck said, “there will be significant consequences.”
What he’s talking about is nothing new.
The law in Nevada, for example, contains a so-called bad actor clause that precludes some online poker sites from obtaining a license. PokerStars is the largest operator in the world, and it’s shut out for its activities following the passage of UIGEA in 2006.
New Jersey law does not contain a bad actor clause, and regulators granted PokerStars a license following an internal restructuring.
Denying or revoking a gaming license would be straightforward enough, but how do state officials actually block these sites from serving their customers? Can they?
Not the DGE’s first rodeo
Rebuck has had his sights set on Bovada for some time, and rightly so.
While major sites like PartyPoker pulled out of the US market amid federal pressure, Bovada continued to operate in defiance. At one point, it was the third-largest online poker site according to traffic data on PokerScout.
The DGE did what it could to combat the problem, with the launch of regulated online gambling making enforcement a priority. The state needed to protect its own financial interests and those of its gambling residents.
In 2014, regulators began issuing cease and desist orders to unlicensed operators and affiliates that advertised them. Bovada agreed to stop taking new account registrations from NJ customers, but it continued to serve its existing base in the state.
At the time, the site was licensed by the Kahnawake Gaming Commission (KGC), a Mohawk tribal agency based in Canada.
The DGE began working directly with the KGC to further mitigate the problem, and it led to more apparent progress. In 2016, the KGC directed its licensees to stop serving NJ customers. Most operators complied, while Bovada relinquished its gaming license instead.
In retrospect, it’s clear that the company only surrendered its KGC license to avoid complying with the new policy. Bovada once again serves the majority of the US market, now under oversight from no regulatory body.
What can regulators do, though?
At this point, it’s not even clear who’s behind Bovada.
Billionaire businessman Calvin Ayre founded the original site, then called Bodog, in Costa Rica. Ayre’s gambling empire made him one of America’s most-wanted fugitives for a time, leading to a federal indictment stemming from the Panama Papers.
Bodog operations were essentially rebranded and transferred to a Canadian tribal group, but the current state of ownership is unknown. Operations apparently shifted again following the policy change in 2016. Neither the KGC nor any other agency currently regulates Bovada.
Herein lies the problem for the DGE. It seems to have exhausted all available avenues for relief. International regulators may agree to help the DGE — and they have — but what about sites that are completely unregulated?
Cracking down on these operators would likely require a federal effort akin to the online poker shutdown of Black Friday. Perhaps the US Department of Justice would seize domain names or freeze accounts. Short of that, there doesn’t seem to be much Rebuck can do on his own.
As more states move toward the legalization of online gambling, might another crackdown at the federal level be in the cards?