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Lessons From the Full Tilt Ponzi

ConsumerWatch / Scams Aug 04, 2012 - 10:18 AM GMT

By: Ashvin_Pandurangi

ConsumerWatch

Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleIn the midst of the Eurozone crisis and corporate bankruptcy scandals such as MF Global last year, a smaller-scale yet meaningful scandal went relatively unnoticed. This scandal erupted on what poker players now call "Black Friday" - April 15, 2011. That was the day when U.S. federal authorities unsealed indictments, seized the domains and assets of the three most popular online poker sites - Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars and the Cereus network (Absolute Poker) - and arrested the owners. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. poker players were locked out of their online accounts and separated from their funds.


Initially, the central charge against these sites and their owners was one of bank fraud and money laundering. While PokerStars was soon able to return money owed to players, FullTilt players have yet to receive the almost $350 million owed to them. In comparison, that's about 30% of the amount that was looted from the wealthy clients of MF Global. After several more months of investigation, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan was forced to state that "Full Tilt was not a legitimate poker company, but a global Ponzi scheme".

“Not only did the firm orchestrate a massive fraud against the U.S. banking system, as previously alleged, Full Tilt also cheated and abused its own players to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars,” [U.S. Attorney] Bharara said. “Full Tilt insiders lined their own pockets with funds picked from the pockets of their most loyal customers while blithely lying to both players and the public alike about the safety and security of the money deposited with the company.”

 

From 2007 to 2011, the owners and board members of Full Tilt received about $443 million in payouts while being well aware that the money owed to players worldwide did not exist and could not be paid out. This included payouts to such trusted names in poker as Howard Lederer, Rafe Furst and Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. Players with funds deposited on Full Tilt had every right to be outraged at this criminal behavior, but, then again, these types of corporate ponzi schemes should be viewed as business as usual in the global economy by now.

Every major bank in the world, including the ones that were allegedly "defrauded" by these poker sites (as if they couldn't figure out what was really going on with all of the sketchily-named transactions they processed), operate on the exact same ponzi principles as Full Tilt. If the "Black Friday" poker disaster can teach us anything, it is that the money you have on deposit at your financial institution does not really exist and there will soon come a day when the banks, in conjunction with the government, prevent you from cashing out your deposits.

For some reason, most Americans still cannot envision such a scenario occurring, even though it has started occurring in Europe and has already occurred to hundreds of thousands of poker players here (as well as the clients of MF Global). They believe that, at the worst, restrictions will be temporary, losses will be minor and the government will eventually make them whole. Well, let's look at what is now happening with the funds of Full Tilt players to perhaps get a glimpse of how these future "bank holidays" will play out.

Poker Players' Association Repayment Updates

 

On April 15, 2011, forever known as "Black Friday" to the poker community, hundreds of thousands of US online poker players lost the ability to access their accounts on the major poker sites. Since that time the PPA has made it a priority to do everything it can to help those players get their money back. Thankfully, PokerStars fulfilled its obligation to its players and promptly returned their funds. Players on FullTiltPoker and the Cereus network were not compensated however. In July 2011 the PPA released the Player's Funds Legal Guide in order to help players understand their rights and the various methods to assert those rights as the situation unfolded.

 

Now, 15 months later, another chapter of the saga has come to an end. As reported here the DOJ, FTP and PokerStars have finally come to an agreement settling the civil cases against those sites and paving the way for account balances to finally be returned. The PPA applauds the efforts of the DOJ and all the various parties for reaching this agreement and especially thanks them for making the return of player funds an important priority of the agreement. While details of the player repayment process, known as "remission of funds," are still not available, rest assured that the PPA will be working diligently to help ensure a fair and easy process for all parties. We have reached out to the DOJ with player concerns before and we will continue to do so. We also will be available to the DOJ to assist it wherever we can in terms of what either the PPA or the players can do to help make the process easier.

 

The remission process was discussed in the July 2011 PPA Player's Funds Legal Guide and you can re-read that section to get a general idea of the process. But the specific details of how the process will be conducted with respect to the specific FTP situation are still being determined by the DOJ. The PPA will use this page to keep you informed of all the details of that process as soon as they are available. The PPA will also use this page to provide you with all the assistance it can to help you through this process if you were one of the players affected.

So bookmark this page, return frequently, and keep your eye out for notices of updates. The PPA will make sure the information is here as soon as it is available. Until more information is available the only advice that can be given at this time is to remain calm, gather all the information you still have regarding your FTP account (especially your screen name, your password, and the name under which the account was registered), and stay tuned.

This development was by far the best news a U.S. player with funds deposited at Full Tilt could hope to hear. After 15 months of separation from their funds, most players had been resigned to the fact that their money had vanished for good. Now, it seems that the acquisition of Full Tilt by an even larger online poker company, PokerStars, will make room for players to finally get their money back. However, it still isn't at all clear what portion of money owed to U.S. players will be remitted or how long it will take for the process to complete.

In the PPA's 2011 "Legal Guide" referenced above, they say the following:

It has been well reported and documented that contemporaneous with the filing of the April 15, 2011, indictments against the site owners and their payment processors, the Federal Government initiated substantial forfeiture actions against site assets and specifically moved tofreeze bank accounts used by the sites to hold substantial funds. Subsequently the Federal Government has taken legal proceedings to declare these funds forfeited to the Federal Government as the "proceeds" of illegal activity. Many players believe that a substantial reasonthey have not been paid as of yet is that these seized funds represent a significant amount of the sites’ assets, though exact figures are not yet public knowledge. So, players ask, how about seeking to get player money from the money seized by the Government? Answering this question is enormously complex, and whether and how to seek to do it (or not) will once againdepend on the specific circumstances of the individual player. For players to determine that answer for themselves, the basic principles of Federal Forfeiture must be understood and discussed with private counsel.

The only thing we know for sure is that U.S. players will have to submit a petition for remission of funds to the Department of Injustice once the details are finalized. So you have to ask yourself - is this the kind of frustrating, drawn-out and complex process that you want to go through to get your deposited funds from the bank? Are you willing to "stay tuned" for more than a year before the insolvent bank is acquired by a larger entity and you can finally petition that entity (or the government) to reimburse you, at anywhere from 100 to 50 cents on the dollar? Remember, this is really the best-case scenario when severely under-capitalized institutions go bust.

That is especially true if the owners are targets in a civil or criminal investigation, as is the case with Full Tilt. We can easily imagine a situation in which the Department of Injustice indicts a network of major and mid-level U.S. banks on various criminal charges for political reasons, but also as a means of giving those institutions an excuse not to pay out their depositors. Just like it did with Full Tilt, this play could go down after a bunch of board members and upper-level management at these banks have siphoned off billions in compensation, bonuses and redeemed equity shares (many of them already have).

And just like with the major poker sites, there will be one or two high-level guys that take the fall and the rest of the charges will be settled before any sort of trial. The major difference is - who will be able to rescue the assets of these banks and raise the funds necessary to pay out depositors? We are obviously talking much, much greater factors of losses than those endured by U.S. poker players. And as we know all too well, only central governments can step in to backstop these financial ponzi institutions. By the time such a rescue is necessary again, those government ponzis will have been bled dry by the corporate war machine as well.

I suspect that most Americans and Europeans with large deposits in the bank will easily see 25, 50 or even 100% of those deposits disappear into a black hole, and they will not be nearly as lucky as U.S. poker players in finding any "white knights" to reimburse them. If anything, they will have to wait a solid 6-12 months before hearing anything about how to go about getting their money back, and then perhaps another 6-12 months to actually get it. By that time, the state of the global economy and society will be quite nasty, and those funds may be useless anyway. What kind of capital restrictions will be in place across the Western world by then?

The only smart move is, and has always been, to get whatever money you will need over at least a year or two out of the bank RIGHT NOW. Despite their after-the-fact claims to the contrary, most people in the poker community had no idea how or when Black Friday was going to hit, and how extensive the ensuing monetary damage would be. All I know is that the poker players who, for whatever reason, decided to liquidate all of their funds before April 15, 2011 now look like geniuses, while the rest of us look like chumps. But I don't really care what I look like... I just want to get back the money that is owed to me and learn from my misplaced trust.

Ashvin Pandurangi, third year law student at George Mason University
Website: http://theautomaticearth.com (provides unique analysis of economics, finance, politics and social dynamics in the context of Complexity Theory)

© 2012 Copyright Ashvin Pandurangi - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.


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