Crime in the Suites: An Analyis of Current Issues in White Collar Defense
Posts Tagged ‘Gaming law’
Mar 01

Federal Judge Strikes Down N.J. Sports Betting Statute as Conflicting With Federal Law

Last night, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Shipp released an opinion in the widely watched New Jersey sports betting case, stating that New Jersey’s sports betting law is invalid as conflicting with federal law. Now, the future of sports betting in the United States will be decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

The Professional and Amateur Sports Betting Act of 1992 (PASPA), prohibits any state from offering sports betting unless that state had a sports betting scheme in place between 1976 and 1990. Under the law Delaware, Oregon and Montana were granted limited sports betting schemes and Nevada is the only state authorized to offer single-game sports betting.

In 2011, New Jersey voters approved a referendum by a 2-1 margin to amend the state constitution to allow for sports betting in the state’s casinos and racetracks. The state legislature then passed a bill legalizing sports betting in the state and it was signed into law by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R). The New Jersey law would allow wagering on all major professional and collegiate sporting events, except collegiate sporting events involving New Jersey colleges, and all sporting events, professional or collegiate, taking place in the state.

In August, the four major professional sports leagues and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) filed suit against New Jersey arguing that the state’s sports gambling law was in violation of federal law.

In December, the court heard oral arguments on the leagues’ standing to bring the suit and found that they did have standing. After that ruling, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced its intention to intervene and join the four major sports leagues and the NCAA as plaintiffs in the case. The DOJ filed a brief on February 1 defending the constitutionality of PASPA.

Judge Shipp heard oral arguments on February 14, 2013, on the constitutionality of PASPA. The oral arguments focused on three main constitutional issues: Congress’s power to regulate sports betting under the Commerce Clause and the applicability of the uniformity and equal sovereignty principles under the Commerce Clause, due process and equal protection issues under the Fifth Amendment, and the contention that the law violates the anti-commandeering principle that prohibits the federal government from imposing duties on state legislators or executive officials to carry out a federal initiative.

After a very lengthy analysis, the court found that PASPA did not violate the anti-commandeering principle because it “neither compels nor commandeers New Jersey to take any action.” One point of contention during oral arguments was if the anti-commandeering principle applies only when a state is required to engage in affirmative activity. The court agreed with the leagues on this point, by stating that the case law makes it clear that, “Congress cannot, via the Commerce Clause, force States to engage in affirmative activity” and noted that the difference between forcing a state to affirmatively do something and being prohibited from doing something “is not merely academic or insubstantial.”

The court’s opinion also made it clear that it does not believe that PASPA violates any Tenth Amendment principles. The state has argued that Nevada was essentially granted a monopoly on single game sports betting through PASPA and that was a challenge to its state sovereignty. The court did not agree that PASPA usurps state sovereignty and noted that “the fact that gambling might be considered an area subject to the States’ traditional police powers does not change this conclusion.”

The court found that PASPA’s grandfathering clause that allows a few states to offer sports betting comports with the Commerce Clause. The court pointed to the legislative findings of PASPA stating that, “Congress has determined that the substantial reliance interests of the grandfathered states merit preservation and protection,” and therefore, the grandfather clause contained in PASPA passed the rational basis review.

This decision on the constitutionality of PASPA will almost inevitably be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and the state will have 30 days to file its appeal. The Third Circuit has heard prior appeals regarding PASPA, but has never directly addressed the constitutionality of the statute, which it will need to in this case.

New Jersey could also appeal the decision by Judge Shipp granting the leagues standing to bring this lawsuit. The leagues have stated in court filings that “the impact of state-sponsored gambling on the public perception of their games and their relationships with their fans are sufficient to confer constitutional standing in this case.” The leagues also argue that Congress expressly recognized that they would suffer from the spread of state-sponsored gambling on their games and provided them with a cause of action under PASPA.

The two sides disagree on what precedent has been set by the Third Circuit on standing issues related to PASPA. In 2009, the Third Circuit ruled in Office of the Commissioner of Baseball v. Markell, that Delaware’s plan to expand its sports betting offerings violated PASPA. Standing was not discussed in the opinion in Markell and lawyers for the leagues argued that this was because the standing of the leagues was so obvious that the court did not need to address it. At oral arguments, Judge Shipp directly asked the state how it could reconcile its argument that the league lacked standing with the Third Circuit’s decision.

The Supreme Court has never addressed PASPA.

This decision is a minor setback for New Jersey, and the future of sports betting in America will be played out in the Third Circuit. It would have been a bold step for a federal district court judge to overturn a federal law that had been existence for two decades. Judge Shipp’s ruling shows that he was being conservative in deferring to Congress in this case, even noting that “judicial intervention is generally unwarranted no matter how unwise a court considers a policy decision of the legislative branch.”

posted in:
State Criminal
Feb 26

N.J. Legalizes Online Gaming as Christie Signs State Bill Into Law

Today, New Jersey became the third state in the country to legalize online gaming within its borders, as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) signed into law a bill legalizing online gaming in the state.

Here is a video in which Jeff Ifrah, founding partner of Ifrah Law, discusses this exciting development.

Both houses of the state legislature had previously passed the bill by large margins and Gov. Christie had sent the bill back to the legislature requesting minor changes to the bill. The legislature made the changes requested by Gov. Christie, and on Tuesday the state General Assembly voted 68-5-1 to pass the bill with the Governor’s requested changes. The State Senate then voted to pass the bill by a margin of 35-1. Governor Christie signed the bill into law shortly thereafter.

The changes requested by the Governor included an enhanced level of funding for compulsive gambling treatment programs, a requirement that state employees and legislators disclose any representation past or present of entities seeking Internet gaming licenses, and an extension of a prohibition on any casino-related employment for state employees and legislators to include companies involved in Internet gaming.

New Jersey’s online gaming law would allow the state to participate in interstate gaming compacts with other states that have legalized online gaming within their borders, as long as this is consistent with federal law. Online gaming compacts would allow for the possibility of generating much larger player pools for the games as well as significant extra revenue for the state.

Under the law, casinos or their affiliates would be allowed to offer the same games that are currently offered on Atlantic City casino gaming floors. All players must be physically located in New Jersey, but do not need to be residents of New Jersey. There is no definitive word yet on when games will become operational, but it is quite possible that it could happen this year.

The law will help to stimulate the New Jersey economy and created needed jobs and revenue for the state.

“Internet gaming will provide a lifeline to New Jersey casinos by producing more jobs and additional revenue,” said bill sponsor New Jersey State Senator Raymond Lesniak (D). “At the same time, it will contribute to the state’s economic recovery and generate more revenue for state programs for seniors and the disabled.”

Under the law, all equipment used in Internet gaming is required to be located in Atlantic City. This will create a significant number of jobs in the region.

We are very happy to see New Jersey enact an online gaming law. This will be an enormous boost for the state as well as great news for gamers, who will soon be able to play online again.


posted in:
Internet Law
Feb 26

This Gaming Case Didn’t Have to Be Prosecuted

A Nevada man now has a criminal record – simply because he placed a bet in a casino in Las Vegas and a casino employee didn’t ask him enough questions.

Robert Walker recently pleaded guilty in federal court to one misdemeanor count involving a record-keeping violation and was sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation. He was also ordered to pay a $250 fine and agreed to forfeit a $32,400 bet he made in March 2011.

Walker was a member of Acme Trading Group, a company whose members placed bets for several years at a number of casinos on Acme’s behalf. Acme is structured in a way that allows individuals to invest in the company, and bets are made on behalf of the company.

Messenger betting is a crime under Nevada law that occurs when wagers are placed at sports books by individuals on behalf of others. Thus far, Acme Trading Group has not been prosecuted for messenger betting, although Walker and others have clearly been subject to law enforcement scrutiny.

In November 2011, Walker was indicted on four felony counts under 31 U.S.C. 5313(a) for causing a domestic financial institution to fail to file an accurate currency transaction report. Walker faced a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted of all charges.

The indictment alleged that on four occasions, Walker went to the Golden Nugget Casino Race & Sports Book and placed a bet of more than $10,000, and that when he was asked by the employee taking the bet if he was gambling on behalf of anyone else, he said that he was not.

Under federal law, all financial institutions, which include casinos, must file reports of any currency transactions over $10,000. The casino must also verify the name and the address of the individual placing the bet and the taxpayer identification information of the person on whose behalf the bet is being placed.

Walker’s attorneys contended in court filings that the burden is on the casinos, and not the individual bettor, to determine whether the individual is placing the bet on behalf of himself or a third party. Walker’s attorneys stated that Golden Nugget personnel never asked him if he was placing bets on behalf of someone else, and if they had asked him, he would have informed them that he was wagering on behalf of Acme. He had been instructed by his employer, he said, that if asked, he should reply to casino personnel that he was placing the bet on behalf of Acme.

Attorneys for Walker also stated in court papers that they hired an investigator who went to the Golden Nugget and engaged in at least seven transactions that required reporting under federal law. In none of those transactions did casino personnel ever ask the investigator if he was placing the wager for himself or on behalf of someone else.

This is a case that simply did not need to be prosecuted. Factually, there were very serious questions raised regarding the role that the casino played in trying to obtain the information necessary to file the reports and regarding the issue of who is responsible for making sure that information is reported.

Walker accepted a plea that would grant him a year of unsupervised probation; the indictment he was originally facing had a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Walker now has a criminal record as the result of very aggressive and unnecessary prosecution. Is this the type of case that the government’s limited prosecutorial resources should be focused on?

Feb 18

Judge Will Probably Rule Soon on N.J. Sports Betting Plan

New Jersey will likely learn within two weeks if it will be able to move forward with its plan to implement sports betting in the state’s casinos and racetracks.

U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp heard oral arguments in Trenton on February 14, 2013, on the constitutionality of the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) and will decide the initial fate of the bill passed last year by the state legislature to legalize sports betting in the state.

The implications of this ruling will be far-reaching, since a decision in favor of the state would remove the biggest hurdle for New Jersey and other states that wish to implement sports betting plans. A favorable ruling could bring live sports betting to New Jersey within a few months.

In December, the court heard oral arguments on the plaintiffs’ standing to bring the suit and found that they did have standing. Next, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced its intention to intervene and join the four major sports leagues and the NCAA as plaintiffs in the case. The DOJ filed a brief on February 1 defending the constitutionality of PASPA.

Paul Fishman, the U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, argued on behalf of the DOJ at the hearing and emphasized that PASPA was intended to stop the spread of state-sponsored gambling. Fishman’s arguments focused on the constitutional soundness of the statute, emphasizing that as long as there was a rational basis to pass the law, it was a valid exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause.

Ted Olson, the former United States Solicitor General who was arguing on behalf of the state, opened his arguments by making reference to the jobs and revenue that legalized sports betting would create for New Jersey. Olson also emphasized how state voters, the legislature, and the governor had all backed a law last year that would permit sports wagering but are prevented from implementing the law because of PASPA.

Fishman ended his initial arguments by discussing a 1991 memo written by the DOJ when PASPA was under consideration in Congress – a memo that the DOJ did not address in its brief on the constitutionality of PASPA. This memo noted that determinations of how to raise revenue are typically left to the states and since PASPA was seeking to regulate how states generate revenue, “it raises federalism issues.” Fishman tried to downplay the significance of the letter and argued that the “federalism issues” that the letter refers to were taken out of context.

The arguments covering the anti-commandeering principle, which prohibits the federal government from imposing duties on state legislators or executive officials to carry out a federal initiative, seemed to be of particular interest to Judge Shipp. Both sides argued at length about any costs or burden that New Jersey has been forced to take on in order to be in compliance with PASPA. Jeffrey Mishkin, representing the sports leagues, argued that for anti-commandeering issues to arise, the law must require some affirmative conduct from the state and that PASPA does not compel New Jersey to do anything. Olson also pointed out that there are costs and burdens imposed on New Jersey for complying with PASPA. Olson emphasized that the federal government should not be allowed to impose its will on the state, especially since Nevada has essentially been given a monopoly on single sports game betting under the statute.

The decision in this case will likely be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. That court has heard prior appeals involving PASPA, but none of those cases addressed the issue of the constitutionality of the statute. The Supreme Court has never addressed PASPA.

It remains to be seen how Judge Shipp will rule in this case. State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who has spearheaded New Jersey’s efforts to bring sports gambling to the state, has stated that sports betting could be live within 60 days if New Jersey receives a favorable ruling in the case. We support New Jersey’s efforts to legalize sports wagering in the state in the interests of helping its economy and citizens.

posted in:
State Criminal
Feb 12

Domain Name Seizure – It’s Not Just a U.S. Law Enforcement Tactic

We have previously reported in this space about the use of domain name seizures by American law enforcement – for example, here and here.  Recent media reports show that domain name seizure has become the go-to tactic for law enforcement for other countries as well.

Canadian police made a series of arrests during an invitation-only Super Bowl party attended by 2300 people as part of Project Amethyst. A Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokesperson says this was connected with the arrest of 21 individuals related to a separate online credit betting operation in November. The more recent arrests were connected with an online sports betting operation that used the website located at In addition to arresting six individuals, officers also seized $2.5 million in cash as a result of the execution of nine search warrants in and around Toronto.

Police also seized the domain name associated with a Costa Rica-based website, which is registered with Washington State-based Enom, Inc. Police obtained a Canadian court order for that purpose, and then submitted a request under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) between Canada and the United States. The domain name was then transferred to the control of Canadian law enforcement authorities who, in turn, redirected it to a new landing page. Visitors to the website are now greeted by a notice stating that the web site has been “restrained by court order granted to the Attorney General of Ontario.”

Media reports indicate that the website was back online as within hours of the shutdown. The .tk top level domain belongs to Tokelau, a non-self-governing territory off the coast of New Zealand. The .tk version of the domain name was reportedly registered in 2004, suggesting that the group operating the sports book had set up contingency plans for a seizure of its .com website.

Whatever the merits of the Canadian prosecution against individuals affiliated with PlatinumSB, the seizure of the domain name certainly shows that domain name seizure is by no means a tactic used only by U.S. law enforcement. As more and more businesses move largely or exclusively to the Internet, the global use of this law enforcement tactic is sure to grow.

Feb 11

Facebook Takes Steps to Expand Presence in Real Money Gaming

Facebook is quickly expanding its real money gaming platform. Net Entertainments has signed a license agreement with Bonza Gaming, which is a joint venture between gaming publisher Plumbee and online gaming operator Sportingbet. Under the agreement Net Entertainment will offer a range of casino games to Bonza Gaming, which will create an app, Bonza Slots, that will be available on Facebook to users that want to participate in real money gaming.

Facebook is now the world’s largest social media outlet, with over a billion active users. Last summer, Facebook announced that it would expand its social gaming to real money gaming, beginning initially with users in the United Kingdom. Bonza Slots becomes the third real money gaming app on Facebook, joining Gamesys and 888 Holdings; all three companies have recently reached deals with Facebook to launch their real money gaming apps. With Facebook’s massive user base, it can accomplish what other online gaming sites could likely only achieve on a much smaller scale — the ability to reach a large and constantly growing base of players.

Facebook is no stranger to online gaming. For some time now, it has offered its users the option of playing online games for Facebook credits as an alternative to real money. In 2011, Facebook changed its advertising policies, allowing online gambling companies to advertise in jurisdictions where such services are permitted. In the past, Facebook has been extremely strict when it comes to advertising online gambling business on its website. Now, Facebook’s Advertising Guidelines web page has a specific online gambling clause under the Gambling and Lotteries subsection of the Ad Content section, which reads: “Ads that promote or facilitate online gambling, games of skill or lotteries, including online casino, sports books, bingo, or poker, are only allowed in specific countries with prior authorization from Facebook.”

It is not clear how much Facebook will charge real money gaming companies to operate on its platform. In general, Facebook charges other apps 30 percent of their revenue, and there is no indication that gaming will work any differently. After reviewing Facebook’s public filings, we still have some questions about this and we will report back as we find answers.

In any case, Facebook’s new online real gaming platform will immediately give it a strong position in the real money market in the United Kingdom and a great opportunity to monetize its very large user base. With legislative efforts for real money online gaming gaining momentum across the United States, Facebook could be well positioned to be a power in the U.S. market in the future if it chooses to do so.

posted in:
Internet Law
Feb 07

N.J. Appears Set to Become 3rd U.S. State to Legalize Online Gaming

New Jersey is poised to become the third state in the country to legalize online gaming. Today, Gov. Chris Christie (R) sent the state iGaming bill back to the legislature requesting some minor changes and indicated that he is prepared to move forward with the bill once those changes are made.

Gov. Christie’s statement said, “I have concluded that now is the time for our State to move forward, again leading the way for the nation, by becoming one of the first States to permit Internet gaming.” The statement goes on to say, “I authorize this step towards modernizing Atlantic City’s entertainment attractions cautiously, with carefully constructed limitations that will ensure the highest integrity and the most robust oversight.”

New Jersey’s online gaming bill allows for all casino games to be played online, not just poker.

On December 20, 2012, the New Jersey State Senate voted 33-3 to legalize online gaming in the state after the state General Assembly previously approved the bill by a vote of 48-25-3.

State legislators have indicated that they are prepared to make the changes suggested by the governor and could get a new bill back on his desk in a matter of weeks.

The sponsor of the bill, State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D), called the governor’s decision “a huge win” and something that “can help keep Atlantic City from drowning in red ink.”

The changes requested by Gov. Christie today included an increase in the tax rate on revenues generated from online gaming, additional funding for problem gamblers, and tighter regulations on relationships between state employees and companies that hold an Internet gaming license. The bill also expires in 10 years, although there is nothing preventing the state from renewing the legislation in the future.

We are very happy to see New Jersey take a huge step toward bringing Internet gaming to the state and toward adding more jobs and revenue.

posted in:
State Criminal
Feb 03

DOJ Brief Tries to Keep N.J. Sports Gaming Law Out of Bounds

On Friday, February 1, 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey defending the constitutionality of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA), the hotly contested federal law that prohibits sports betting in most states. New Jersey is seeking to have the court find this law unconstitutional. A win for the state would have far-reaching ramifications by eliminating the primary hurdle that individual states have in implementing legal sports betting within their borders.

PASPA prohibits any state from offering sports betting unless that state had a sports betting scheme in place between 1976 and 1990. New Jersey had a one-year period to enact sports betting, but its legislature failed to act. Delaware, Oregon and Montana have limited sports betting schemes in place, and Nevada is the only state that is authorized to offer single-game sports betting under the law.

On January 22, DOJ announced that it planned to intervene in the lawsuit brought by the four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA challenging the New Jersey state law. DOJ could have brought a case when the law was initially passed, but chose not to.

The DOJ brief raises three main constitutional issues: the anti-commandeering principles of the Tenth Amendment, Congress’s power to regulate sports wagering under the Commerce Clause and the applicability of the uniformity and equal sovereignty principles under the Commerce Clause, and due process and equal protection clause issues under the Fifth Amendment.

DOJ argues in its brief that the anti-commandeering principle applies only when a federal statute requires specific, affirmative action by a state and that since PASPA does not require New Jersey to take any action but merely to refrain from starting a betting program, the principle is inapplicable.

New Jersey replies that the anti-commandeering principle does apply because a federal law is imposing constraints on the state. PASPA’s stated purpose is “to require States to govern according to Congress’ instructions.” The Supreme Court case that established the anti-commandeering principle, New York v. United States (1992), states that “the Constitution has never been understood to confer upon Congress the ability to require the States to govern according to Congress’ instructions.”

Additionally, under the Tenth Amendment, the power of the federal government is limited. Courts have typically viewed the ability to raise revenue, such as through gambling, as one of those rights reserved to the states. New Jersey has successfully regulated gambling for decades but has been prohibited from regulating sports betting simply because it did not have a betting scheme in place before enactment of PASPA over 20 years ago.

DOJ argues that PASPA is a valid exercise of federal power under the Commerce Clause because sports gambling has an effect on interstate commerce and PASPA is a rational method of achieving regulation of it. DOJ also does not give any credence to the argument that the law violates the principle of equal sovereignty.

New Jersey argues that the principle of equal sovereignty does apply under the Commerce Clause. The plain text of the Commerce Clause does not make clear that all states must be treated uniformly, but the state believes that the case law makes it applicable.

New Jersey argues that contrary cases cited by DOJ deal with regulations that fell unevenly on the states because of circumstances that were not spread through the country, largely based on geography. However, the rationale for allowing some states to authorize sports betting and not others was the pre-existing scheme in place before PASPA and nothing else. The grandfathering clause of PASPA has served to grant a monopoly to Nevada while discriminating against all other states. This federal government-sponsored monopoly denies to the states the equal sovereignty that they are guaranteed under the Constitution.

The DOJ brief states that the arguments that PASPA violates the due process and equal protection guarantees of the Fifth Amendment are inapplicable because they protect only “persons” and not states from actions of the federal government. New Jersey argues that the discrimination between the states that PASPA has produced, by essentially granting Nevada a monopoly on single games sports betting, rises to the level of “injurious character” as to violate due process. This is likely the weakest argument that the state is making, and the court will likely rule in favor of DOJ on this point.

When PASPA was being debated in Congress, DOJ sent a letter to then Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), then the Judiciary Committee chairman, discussing the views of DOJ on PASPA. The letter noted that determinations of how to raise revenue are typically left to the states and since PASPA was seeking to regulate how states generate revenue, “it raises federalism issues.” DOJ chose not to address that letter in its brief.

New Jersey and the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association will have an opportunity to file a reply brief with the court by February 8. Oral arguments on the constitutionality of PASPA will be held on February 14.

The arguments made in the DOJ brief, for the most part, have already been made by counsel for the sports leagues. However, it remains to be seen if the court will give the arguments more weight because they were made by the U.S. government.

If the court accepts any of the arguments made by New Jersey that PASPA is unconstitutional, then New Jersey will prevail. It remains to be seen how the court will rule, but the constitutionality of PASPA will surely be tested and the consequences of this ruling will be very far-reaching. Whichever side loses the battle in the district court will likely appeal, meaning it may be some time before it is settled whether New Jersey can proceed with its plan to implement sports betting.

Jan 22

DOJ Plans to Intervene in N.J. Sports-Betting Case

The U.S. Department of Justice announced on January 22, 2013, that it plans to intervene in the lawsuit brought by the four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA challenging a New Jersey state law that legalized sports betting in the state.

The leagues have argued in court papers that the New Jersey law is invalid because it directly contravenes a 1992 federal law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) that imposes a ban on sports betting unless the individual state had its own sports betting scheme in place between 1976 and 1990. New Jersey was given a one year window to put in place a sports betting scheme, but the legislature failed to act.

The DOJ has requested that it have until February 1 to respond to the two briefs that challenge the constitutionality of PASPA. The DOJ has also requested the opportunity to participate in oral argument on the constitutionality of PASPA on February 14.

A year ago, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed legislation allowing sports betting in New Jersey after it was approved by a 2-1 margin in a nonbinding voter referendum in November 2011.

The DOJ could have brought this lawsuit when the law was initially passed, but chose not to. Instead, the case was brought by the four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA. New Jersey has argued that the leagues lacked standing to bring the suit. However, last month, after briefs were filed an oral arguments were held, a district court judge in New Jersey ruled that the leagues do have standing to bring the suit.

When PASPA was being debated in Congress, the DOJ sent a letter to then Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.), then the Judiciary Committee chairman, discussing the views of the DOJ on PASPA. The letter noted that determinations of how to raise revenue are typically left to the states and since PASPA was seeking to regulate how states generate revenue “it raises federalism issues.”

A successful outcome for New Jersey in this case would allow for other states to pursue legalized sports betting. We support New Jersey’s efforts to legalize sports betting and generate needed revenue and jobs for the state.

Jan 16

Bitcoins: Online Currency’s Uncharted Frontier

Bitcoin – it sounds like a token you might use to play skeeball at a beachside arcade. It is actually a relatively new, virtual online “currency” being used for payments across the Internet. While some observers have noted that the Bitcoin has been utilized primarily for purchases in the Internet “underworld,” the Bitcoin actually has gained traction more recently as a legitimate payment exchange. The Bitcoin might just be the surprise of the next generation of e-commerce and its progeny, mobile commerce.

The Bitcoin originated in 2009 with the issuance of the first Bitcoins by Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous person or group of people who designed the original protocol and created the peer-to-peer network. Users connect with other users rather than with a central issuer or server. This makes the Bitcoin attractive for illegal activities – authorities can’t pounce on a central office or simply seize one organization’s assets. The Bitcoin has no central issuing bank. Prices fluctuate a great deal; this past summer one Bitcoin traded at around $10. It is estimated that the monetary base of the Bitcoin is around $110 million.

There are several advantages to Bitcoins. They are largely unregulated. Also, payments can be made anonymously, leaving a minimal or no paper trail. Unlike credit cards, merchants do not face the hassle and uncertainty of “charge backs.” However, because of its past “underground” use, the Bitcoin lacks a reputation and general acceptance by mainstream merchants. For instance, the website “Silk Road” allowed users to buy and sell heroin and other illegal drugs provided they paid for their purchases using Bitcoins. Online gambling services have utilized Bitcoins with relative success.

While the past use of the Bitcoin has been limited, the new currency is picking up steam. Just a few days ago, BitPay, a payment solutions company, announced a large investment by a group of well-known tech investors. They see the Bitcoin as the next “PayPal” offering a fast payment method without the exchange of sensitive personal information that goes along with traditional credit card payments. Investors also see the benefits for small businesses, which can much more easily take payments from overseas using Bitcoins. Today, we can use Bitcoins to buy a wide array of products and services. This website provides links where we can purchase, for instance, jewelry, electronic cigarettes, natural cosmetics, and even survival products and dry cleaning, just to name a few offerings.

Just last month, the Bitcoin gained further acceptance when the Bitcoin-Central exchange owned by Paymium announced that it is partnering with registered PSP Aqoba and Frank Bank Credit Mutuel Arkea in order to legally hold balances in payment accounts within the European regulatory framework. However, as Bitcoins have not to date been backed by a governmental entity and several users have reported losses from fraud and hacking into their computers where they stored Bitcoins, continued use and acceptance will be affected by the reliability of the payment network, as well as any attempts to regulate it.

As use of the Bitcoin expands, regulators (particularly in the United States) may seek to regulate the currency. U.S. prosecutors tend to view anonymous payments with skepticism and suspicion.

Our view is that use of the Bitcoin network has expanded in large part as a natural reaction to overly zealous authorities enforcing anti-money laundering rules and policies against banks and individuals. Parties facing onerous reporting obligations and over-the-top fines have been seeking alternative payment methods. The FBI has shown some interest in Bitcoin (in an April 2012 report the FBI expressed concern about cyber criminals using Bitcoins). Last year, a spokesman for FinCEN stated that “The anonymous transfer of significant wealth is obviously a money-laundering risk, and at some level we are aware of Bitcoin and other similar operations, and we are studying the mechanism behind Bitcoin.”

However, we think the law will take some significant time to catch up with the fast-moving network. It remains to be seen whether current U.S. law can be applied to cover Bitcoins, or if specific legislation would be needed. Further, even if U.S. authorities seek to regulate Bitcoins, actual enforcement would be difficult as there are no stationary “assets” to be seized (not even a domain name or website). Bitcoins are typically stored in a “wallet” on a user’s computer. Authorities would in many instances be required to pursue each “peer” in the peer to peer network, which does not seem terribly practicable. In the interim, Bitcoins appear to be growing in use across industries and geographic locations.

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About Ifrah Law

Crime in the Suites is authored by the Ifrah Law Firm, a Washington DC-based law firm specializing in the defense of government investigations and litigation. Our client base spans many regulated industries, particularly e-business, e-commerce, government contracts, gaming and healthcare.

Ifrah Law focuses on federal criminal defense, government contract defense and procurement, healthcare, and financial services litigation and fraud defense. Further, the firm's E-Commerce attorneys and internet marketing attorneys are leaders in internet advertising, data privacy, online fraud and abuse law, iGaming law.

The commentary and cases included in this blog are contributed by founding partner Jeff Ifrah, partners Michelle Cohen, David Deitch, and associates Rachel Hirsch, Jeff Hamlin, Steven Eichorn, Sarah Coffey, Nicole Kardell, Casselle Smith, and Griffin Finan. These posts are edited by Jeff Ifrah. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments!

Visit the Ifrah Law Firm website