The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York this morning alleged that Full Tilt Poker is a “massive Ponzi scheme.” Back in April, the Department of Justice seized the domain names of the three largest US-facing online poker sites (PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker/Ultimate Bet). Since then, PokerStars has refunded all money on deposit to US players, while Absolute Poker/Ultimate Bet has said basically nothing.
Full Tilt Poker continued to operate for just over two months, until the Aldernay Gambling Control Commission shut them down on June 29th. Full Tilt and the AGCC are having closed door hearings in London today regarding a re-start of Full Tilt Poker. It now appears likely that Full Tilt Poker will never restart.
Full Tilt was not a legitimate poker company, but a global Ponzi scheme. 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.
The owners of Full Tilt Poker are accused of pocketing $440 million since 2007.
Where does this leave players? Assuming the charges are true, its clear that players will not have any of the $150 million (the amount owed to US players; an estimated $300 million is owed to players worldwide) refunded to them voluntarily. The most likely case is that a receiver will wind down Full Tilt Poker’s business, and players will eventually receive pennies on the dollar (after filing claims).
From a tax perspective, this will likely become a casualty loss for players. There are special rules regarding Ponzi schemes and casualty losses (developed after the Madoff case in 2009) that may apply. The problem is that while these losses are definitely related to a Ponzi scheme, are they investment losses?
However, given the US Attorney’s description of the losses, it is possible that Revenue Procedure 2009-20 will apply. There are other possible methods of dealing with this (theft of money on deposit); impacted individuals should consult with their own tax professional as to the best method of treating this loss.
There is time to determine the best tax treatment, though. The losses clearly are 2011 events to be reported (probably) on 2011 tax returns filed in 2012.
One obvious remark: Buyer beware. When you are dealing with an offshore entity, you are going on faith and trust. Sometimes that trust is misplaced.