The truth is that online gambling has the potential to land you in jail but the likelihood is quite low. But as every gambler knows, gambling carries inherent risk. So for some players, perhaps the possibility of ending up in jail — just raises the stakes a bit higher.
Online gambling has become an entertaining and super convenient pastime, especially in the era of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders. Why venture out to the casino when you can play all of your favorite games from the comfort of your couch while wearing your favorite PJs?
The only downside to all of this is that online gambling is, in fact, illegal in the United States. Just flat-out illegal. The trouble is, however, laws in the United States are notoriously ambiguous and vary state by state, making the whole situation rather confusing.
So is it worth it to try your luck — or could your next spin land you in jail? Let’s find out.
The Federal Stance
Gambling laws in the United States have changed drastically over the years. There have been many changes to the laws, some overturned, that have muddled the situation even further.
The FBI’s website, although archived and very out-of-date, clearly states, “No placing cyber bets on sporting events or in virtual card games; No transferring money electronically for gambling; [and] No wagers in offshore Internet casinos even if you live in the U.S.”. Unless you are moving money across state lines, the FBI is probably not going to notice you.
Despite the federal stance on online gambling, the states are the ones with the real power. What’s clear is that the ambiguity of the laws allows the states to use the grey area to their advantage, strengthening or weakening the penalties to appease their constituency or fill the state treasury.
Operators vs. Players
The US government actively seeks out online gambling operations as a starting point for cracking down on online gambling in general. The FBI’s website even states that their, “strategy for tackling illegal online gambling—as a key enforcement agency—is to start with the companies providing the services in the first place.”
The likelihood of the federal government going after the end user is quite low. The reason for this is that the payoff is practically nonexistent. Taking down the operation, the House, the group in charge is more efficient and makes more sense for the federal agency.
Although it may seem insignificant, the distinction between the role of operator and the role of player is an important one to make. While playing casino games online is technically illegal, the chances of the government going after you are very small indeed.
The key here is playing online at an offshore casino. Any online casino that claims to be based in the US is definitely one you want to steer clear of. These operators are not legal and gambling across state lines can get you into big trouble with the federal government. FlashCasino.org has written a great guide on everything you need to know about offshore online casinos.
Penalties by State
The United States does not have a one-size-fits-all policy for illegal online gambling penalties. Each state dictates the penalties for breaking the law and they can range from “disorderly activities” to misdemeanors to actual jail time.
For example, Vermont treats the penalty for online gambling as a small fine. Players who get caught gambling online in Vermont might expect to pay around $200 (max), which is actually less than you could expect to pay in travel expenses if you chose to go to Atlantic City or Las Vegas. Many players in states that use fines as a punishment for online gambling simply look at this as a cost of doing business.
Other states, such as Oregon, label online gambling as a Class A misdemeanor, which carries the penalty of up to one year in jail. Besides the few states that actually allow some form of online gambling, the rest of the states have penalties that fall somewhere on the spectrum from fines to jail time. The good news is that currently, no states have made online gambling as a player a felony, which might give some people a little peace of mind.
Raise the Stakes
For many players, the notion of going to jail for playing online casino games is laughable. Not only does the punishment not fit the crime but the government has never clarified any of these laws to make them understandable to Americans. That being said, there are some states that will throw the book at players rather than operators, hoping that the penalty might dissuade others from doing the same.
The truth is that online gambling has the potential to land you in jail but the likelihood is quite low, depending on the state you’re in. But as every gambler knows, gambling carries inherent risk. So for some players, perhaps the possibility of ending up in jail — just raises the stakes a bit higher.