What do flower stores and pet shops have to do with mob-style gambling operations? Quite a bit, according to a new class action suit against the executives of Full Tilt Poker and a number of celebrity poker players.
In a lawsuit filed on Monday in federal court, two Los Angeles men are demanding that Full Tilt give back money– $10 for one of the men and $120,000 in the case of the other — they say is owed to them after they were unable to cash out their accounts. They also seek punitive damages and $900 million for other Americans who are out of pocket after Full Tilt allegedly cheated them in games and after owners began helping themselves to customer money.
The class action, which names famous poker stars Howard Lederer and Christopher Ferguson, appears to be based on many of the dramatic allegations set out in an FBI indictment unsealed last April. The owners of Full Tilt are accused of using flower stores and pet shops as front companies to trick U.S. banks into processing customers credit card and check transactions. The owners used the front companies because payment requests from them did not carry a transaction code used to flag online gambling, which is illegal in the United States.
The class action also demands that the site owners and celebrity players repay customers for cheating in the online poker games. Full Tilt’s nastiest tactic allegedly involved the use of robots — computer players hatched by Full Tilt that would appear at sparsely populated games and use their card-counting skills to fleece the real players. According to the complaint, Full Tilt assured players that they had “zero tolerance” for robot players — but went ahead and deployed robots created by two company owners with degrees from MIT and UCLA. Even worse, Full Tilt used customer hatred of robots as a pretext to rob successful players:
Certain players who repeatedly lost to a skilled player would start on-line jihads against the successful player, accusing that player of being a robot. The Defendants discovered over time that cancellation of real player accounts accused of being a “robot” was another profit center, as the player account money of the wrongly-accused player was confiscated.
Online gambling is a vast and lucrative enterprise as evidenced by reports that the US government was able to seize $115 million from Full Tilt simply by intercepting a percentage of the payments made to the front companies. Full Tilt and two other major poker sites began struggling in the last two years, however, as increasing pressure from US authorities made it increasingly difficult for the companies to circumvent rules that forbid businesses from processing online gambling transactions. During this time, the Full Tilt owners allegedly began raiding customer accounts, leading US prosecutors last months to describe the company as a “Ponzi Scheme.”
It is unclear whether there will be anything left to collect if the class action suit is successful. The U.S. Department of Justice is already demanding a $1 billion civil penalty from many of those listed in the California suit. There may be good news for customers based on a report that a French investment firm is promising to make losses whole if it can take over the business. The bad news is that the new prospective owner served prison time for stealing from a soccer club he owned.