Millions lay money in virtual casinos

Jul 10, 2001 12:15 AM

The Pew Internet and American Life project estimates that more than 4.5 million Americans have gambled on-line at least once.

After downloading game software, players can surrender cash from their bank debit and credit cards to their choice of more than 250 companies running an estimated 1,400 casino Web sites.

Many sites are unregulated by any government. Some disappear, absconding with winnings. Even relatively stable cybercasinos are often slow to pay out winnings, if they pay off at all, according to players.

Prominent domestic casinos ”” Harrah’s, MGM, Caesar’s Palace and Bally’s ”” have suddenly shifted away from urging a ban on all Internet casino gaming.

Experts say these industry leaders have tired of failed U.S. congressional attempts to regulate Internet gaming, while millions of dollars in potential profits drift to Antigua, Costa Rica, Australia, the United Kingdom and other Internet gambling havens.

As a result, casino gamblers In 38 states with legal games of chance may soon send their Web browsers and their money to Las Vegas. Texas does not permit casino gaming, and its residents would not be permitted to use the Nevada services unless new laws are enacted.

A bill was signed last month that could make Nevada the first state to establish legal click-and-bet Internet casinos. But plenty of legal, moral, financial and technical hurdles remain before Internet casinos take flight, experts say.

The U.S. Justice Department considers online casino wagering to be a violation of the Interstate Wire Act, the 1961 law prohibiting gambling by telephone on a “sporting event or contest.”

There has been one successful federal prosecution of a defendant involved in taking U.S. wagers on an Antigua-based bookmaking Internet site.

The new Nevada legislation mandates that the Wire Act’s ambiguity must be wiped away before any licensing begins.