Credit Card Company: Online Wagers to be Blocked

Citibank, the nation's largest credit card company, is beginning a new system to block customers from using their plastic to make online wagers, New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer said June 14.

Spitzer, who pushed the agreement with Citibank, said he could not yet answer whether the new policy will apply to companies involved in pari-mutuel wagering. But, when asked if he knew of any online betting that is legal, Spitzer said: "I'm not aware of it, not in New York state."

The attorney general said the actions by Citibank, which has 12% of the nation's credit card consumers, should compel other major issuers to follow suit. He said his office would be approaching the other firms to join Citibank.

"Today is a critical step forward,'' Spitzer said. He said the move by Citibank "says to the rest of the industry we think this is the right thing to do.''

The deal represents both a financial and technical step forward on the part of prosecutors and others trying to enforce laws against internet wagering. Spitzer said going after online wagering companies is difficult because they are often located off-shore. And prosecutors like Spitzer have been reluctant, so far, to go after gamblers themselves.

"Increasingly, the choke point where we can enforce the law will be at the point of financial transaction itself through the financial interest that pays for the online activity,'' Spitzer said in announcing the Citibank agreement.

The credit card company will block online wagering by refusing to process transactions that are coded as coming from a company involved in the wagering business. Spitzer said a company that misleads Citibank for the coding purposes would face the loss of its relationship with the credit card company. The policy will pertain to bettors who use their cards to make individual bets or to replenish wagering accounts with online companies.

The Citibank move is not the first by a credit card company, but it is the largest company to act against online gambling; others that have blocked Internet wagering include Bank of America, Fleet, and Chase Manhattan Bank.

Experts said Spitzer's agreement with Citibank could have significant consequences. Bennett Liebman, coordinator of the Program on Racing and Wagering Law at Albany Law School, said the deal could spur action in Washington, D.C., on proposed measures to make it illegal for gambling companies to accept credit cards.

"One of the questions about these bills has been whether or not this type of ban is feasible,'' Liebman said. "If a ban is, in fact, feasible, then this might be an incentive to pass this legislation.''

Liebman said it is too soon to determine the impact on the pari-mutuel industry.

"If (the attorney general) thinks that (TV Games Network) and XpressBet (operated by Magna Enterntainement) are involved with illegal gambling with New York state residents, then this has a significant impact,'" Liebman said.

The "problem is under the way Spitzer appears to view the law, you can't tell what he views is legitimate account wagering," Liebman said.

A Citibank spokeswoman was not available for comment. But in a written statement, Maria Mendler said the steps to block online gambling transactions are now in place. She said the company has also agreed, as part of the deal with Spitzer, to contribute $400,000 to gambling counseling programs.

"Citibank agreed to take these steps to help alleviate concerns raised by the attorney general about the impact that gambling on credit may have on New York residents," Mendler said.

She said the gambling transactions have also increased losses for the company due to fraud and higher delinquency rates.

Spitzer said his office made no legal threats against Citibank, but "explained there was a theory of legal liability" associated with letting credit cards be used for online wagering.