It sounds like the plot of a particularly unrealistic movie about the dangers of gambling, but it turns out to be 100 percent true: An online poker site, based out of an island in the UK where there are no taxes on gambling, has turned out to have been the secret home to a Ponzi scheme that saw players lose somewhere in the region of $350 million – and its owner has found himself arrested at the airport as he flies to the US in the middle of an investigation into the entire affair.
The owner in question is Ray Bitar, the chief executive of the Full Tilt group, who found himself under arrest upon landing at JFK airport yesterday, accused – in the words of US attorney for the southern district of New York, Preet Bharara – of having “bluffed his player-customers and fixed the game against them as part of an international Ponzi scheme that left players empty-handed” with his online poker company, the servers of which happily reside outside of US jurisdiction. He has been charged with nine charges, including bank fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering… oh, and operating an illegal gambling business, as well.
Said business was the Full Tilt family of online poker sites, which were already essentially defunct after American authorities seized the URL of the site (along with two additional URLs) last April as part of an ongoing investigation into companies who were illegally offering Internet poker within the US. Following that seizure, it was alleged that Full Tilt and Bitar were at the center of what was called “a Ponzi-style scheme” that left the site’s players mysteriously out-of-pocket to the tune of roughly $350 million with little explanation.
Full Tilt’s servers are based on the island of Alderney, in the Channel Islands, what seems to be an unexpected gambling mecca; according to the Guardian, “the majority of the 498 registered companies are gambling-related groups,” with an estimated 3,000,000 people using gambling sites based on the island. What draws the companies to Alderney is the lack of gambling and corporation taxes there, although the ethical flexibility doesn’t hurt; apparently, when appraised that American authorities considered Full Tilt – a licensed corporation on the island – to be engaging in activities that they believed were illegal, the regular on the island responded that such illegality was merely an “option” and not proven fact, therefore removing any need to act.
Unsurprisingly, Bitar is maintaining his innocence. In addition to pleasing Not Guilty of the charges against him (He has posted a $2.5 million bond and is currently released on bail), he released a statement through his attorney in which he notes that he “know[s] that a lot of people are very angry at me [and] I understand why.” Not that that’s an admission of any illegal activities, of course. Instead, he offers a suitably vague “Full Tilt should never have gotten into a position where it could not repay player funds” as explanation.