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Full Tilt Poker built Ponzi scheme, federal prosecutors say

The gambling website bilked players out of at least $390 million, according to accusations added to a civil lawsuit. Since April 2007, the company allegedly distributed nearly $444 million to owners and directors, with much of it going into overseas accounts.

September 21, 2011|By Tiffany Hsu, Los Angeles Times
  • Among those named in the lawsuit against Full Tilt Poker are board members Howard Lederer, third from left, and Christopher Ferguson, third from right.
Among those named in the lawsuit against Full Tilt Poker are board members… (Full Tilt Poker )

Internet gambling site Full Tilt Poker and its operators built a global Ponzi scheme that bilked online players out of at least $390 million, according to new allegations in an amended civil lawsuit filed by federal prosecutors.

The U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan said that besides defrauding the U.S. banking system, as alleged in a civil lawsuit last spring, Full Tilt was "not a legitimate poker company."

Instead, it "cheated and abused its own players," prosecutors said, as insiders "lined their own pockets with funds picked from the pockets of their most loyal customers while blithely lying to both players and the public alike about the safety and security of the money deposited with the company."

Full Tilt owed its U.S. customers a total of $150 million as of the end of March, the lawsuit said.

Poker players around the country said they were stunned by the latest accusations.

"If true, these allegations detail a massive betrayal of player trust, which will cause financial hardship for thousands, if not millions, of individual poker players, none of whom are accused of doing anything wrong," John Pappas, executive director of advocacy group Poker Players Alliance, said in a statement."

Defense lawyers declined to comment.

Since April 2007, the company distributed nearly $444 million to owners and directors, with much of it going into overseas accounts, according to the new claims in the civil suit that accuses Full Tilt of money laundering.

The amended civil suit is part of a filing that seeks to recover $3 billion from Full Tilt; two other sites, PokerStars and Absolute Poker; 21 related firms and four individuals: Full Tilt Chief Executive Raymond Bitar and board members and poker stars Howard Lederer, Christopher "Jesus" Ferguson and Rafael Furst.

The sites were shut down April 15, a day many players now refer to as Black Friday, in an FBI raid. Also, a grand jury indicted Bitar and 10 other executives and third-party payment processors for the three sites on charges of bank fraud, money laundering and gambling law violations.

The crackdown sent shudders through the poker community and sent online players scrambling for solace in bricks-and-mortar casinos. Some U.S. high rollers who made a living playing on the Internet packed up and moved abroad.

PokerStars returned money to U.S. players in the wake of the federal actions last spring. Absolute Poker agreed to refund what it owed. But Full Tilt, with only $60 million in its coffers, didn't have enough funds to pay back players, prosecutors said.

Full Tilt also was plagued by a U.S. payment processing network that was disrupted last year, preventing the company from pulling money from customers' bank accounts to fund online gambling credits.

Instead of disclosing the problem, prosecutors said, Full Tilt maintained a false image of financial stability by crediting players' accounts with $130 million in "phantom funds." When players gambled with these funds and lost to other players, a "massive shortfall" developed, they said.

Prosecutors are seeking refunds of $42 million from Lederer, $41 million from Bitar, $25 million from Ferguson and $12 million from Furst and said they also may seek additional money laundering penalties.

A federal court has allowed prosecutors to seize five accounts associated with the men, but three of the accounts are based abroad.

The fraud was made possible, prosecutors said, because Full Tilt was based overseas.

In July, regulators on the British Channel island of Alderney, where Full Tilt was licensed, suspended Full Tilt's international operations.

Debi O'Neill, 53, an administrator for online poker forum CardsChat, recouped all of the $7,500 she had kept at PokerStars. But she still has $2,000 trapped in Full Tilt.

"I don't really expect to ever see any of it again," the Georgia resident said. "I feel like they stole it from me. I trusted them, deposited money there in good faith."

Without the Full Tilt funds to reinvest in other poker sites, O'Neill said, she has lost a part-time livelihood. She now relies on gambling trips to Las Vegas and her husband's salary from a poultry company.

"I can't play the kind of volume I used to," she said. "It's life-changing for me."

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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