State and federal investigators on Wednesday raided a Garden Grove online-gambling company suspected of cheating hundreds of investors out of as much as $20 million.
The Orange County raid was part of a broader crackdown by state authorities on dozens of suspected "boiler room" operations in Southern California that prey on unsophisticated investors by persuading them to pour money into dubious Internet enterprises.
Touting the potential of online gambling--which is illegal in the United States--is one of the most popular ploys, according to officials from the Department of Corporations, which oversees stock offerings in California.
Just three days ago, federal agents arrested six people in Orange County accused of taking part in an Internet gaming scam that netted almost $5 million. State investigators said they are tracking as many as five similar operations in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.
"The Internet is now the marketing vehicle of choice for con artists," said Bill McDonald, the department's enforcement director. He said that his agency is in the midst of a series of Internet-related sweeps and that online gaming is just one of several business categories being targeted.
During Wednesday's raid, authorities seized six computers and about 50 boxes of records from World Wide Web Casinos Inc., a Garden Grove company connected with the Web site http://www.netpirates.com.
Peter Michaels, the company's chief executive, said the allegations are unfounded.
"I don't think we've broken any laws," said Michaels, 35, who founded the company in 1996. "We have a viable business, and this [investigation] is silly."
Michaels said the company is not in violation of federal laws against online gambling because it merely leases software to an Internet casino company in the Solomon Islands, an island nation in the southwest Pacific. He said companies using the software have handled thousands of bets and receive annual revenue of several million dollars.
But state investigators said the company's main enterprise is selling stock to the public in violation of securities laws. McDonald said there may be hundreds of violations, with each carrying a possible fine of up to $10 million and a prison term as long as five years.
McDonald accused the company of lying to investors about its financial performance and alleged that Michaels misused proceeds by spending money lavishly on cars and other personal items. He also alleged that World Wide Web Casinos illegally solicited the general public--through telephone calls and Internet advertisements--for what were supposed to be private stock offerings.
Michaels' company was "telemarketing to anybody and everybody across the country," said one person familiar with the investigation, who asked not to be identified. "They're just boiler-room salesmen taking people's life savings and telling them they're going to own an online casino."
Much of that money is believed to have come from the elderly and other inexperienced investors, who shelled out sums ranging from a few thousand dollars to as much as $300,000 for pieces of a company they were led to believe was poised for an initial public offering.
The lawsuit filed by eight investors who had sunk up to $200,000 apiece into the online gambling start-up labeled the solicitation a pyramid scheme and accused the company's owners of siphoning off investors' money for personal use.
The case was settled last fall, when the company promised to go public within four months, to give investors more say in management and to compensate them with shares in another related Internet gambling outfit, attorney John Zarian said.
But Zarian said World Wide has not honored all the settlement terms and his clients are considering refiling their case.
"We haven't given up hope they will comply, but right now they're in default," he said of the World Wide Web Casinos owners.
People familiar with the company's financial reports described them as suspicious.
"The company had little or no actual operations," said Jack Olesk, a Beverly Hills attorney and accountant hired to perform an audit of the company late last year. "But I saw that substantial amounts of capital had been raised, in the neighborhood of $15 million."
In interviews with reporters when they unveiled their gambling Web site in October 1996, World Wide Web Casinos executives claimed they were on the verge of a blockbuster business.
"We think we're on to something rather huge," said Peter Demos, who was then president of World Wide Web Casinos and described himself as a former pit boss in Lake Tahoe. "The Internet is the future, and the world is our casino."
That same enthusiastic tone was employed by the company's sales force as they telephoned thousands of investors across the country, investigators said, urging them to buy shares of a hot Internet start-up.