This month, millions of Americans will take part in office betting pools and fill out brackets for the NCAA college basketball tournament.
But despite it being illegal, betting during March Madness is common in the United States and dwarfs legal sports gambling, mainly because few people are ever charged with running a friendly office gambling pool.
Unless you are overseeing a large gambling operation or breaking kneecaps in order to collect debts, office pools are not on the radar of law enforcement. You are probably more likely to get arrested for removing the warning tags from your mattress.
"It probably is illegal in almost all cases to be involved in office pool betting, but nobody really cares," said William R. Eadington, director of the University of Nevada, Reno's Institute for the Study of Gambling & Commercial Gaming.
Facebook Sports Gamblers Beware
The type of sports gambling that might make law enforcement take notice is Internet gambling, and moving the friendly office pool online could result in problems with the FBI.
In 2008, the FBI took aim at Facebook users who used the site to set up gambling brackets and issued a public warning, reminding Internet users that online gambling is illegal in the U.S. The type of activity that would particularly draw the FBI's attention is if the organizers are profiting from the action.
"There could be a violation if there's a payout and if the operators take a cut," Rice told the Chicago Tribune.
So far, it has mostly been warnings and strong talk from the FBI on online sports gambling and no cases have yet been pursued. But online sports gamblers in 2009 should beware that March Madness is on the FBI's radar if the operators are taking a cut of the profits.
"If you are taking a percentage of it, a cut out of it, then you are basically becoming a bookie," said professor David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Again, like the office pools, the problem may be too widespread for the FBI to track.
"The main issue we would likely face is if this is worth our resources to investigate," FBI spokesman Ross Rice told the Chicago Tribune.
Online Betting Outpaces Legal Bets
In 2008, Nevada casinos won $136 million from sports betting, according to the Center for Gaming Research. But an estimated $6 billion was illegally bet on the NCAA tournament in 2007 through office pools, online gambling Web sites and street-corner bookies, according to USA Today.
In 2006, President George W. Bush signed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 into law. The law does not make it illegal for Americans to partake in online gambling, but it does prohibit the transfer of funds from a financial institution to and from an Internet gambling site.
"If you facilitate gambling transactions, you are subject to a felony (charge)," said Eadington.
So far, only a few high level people who were allegedly running online gambling sites that took bets from people inside the United States have been arrested and charged with crimes related to online gambling.
One was David Carruthers, who was the CEO of BETonSPORTS.com, which was based outside of the U.S., but allegedly took sports bets from U.S. citizens. Carruthers was arrested after setting foot on U.S. soil in the Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport in 2006 while changing planes on a trip from the United Kingdom to Costa Rica and is currently awaiting trial.
However, as with many other laws, a change may be coming since President Barack Obama took office. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, a senior democrat, announced at a press conference on March 5 his intention to try and repeal the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act and make online gambling legal in the United States.
"Right now, the Internet gambling issue has been very much positioned as a family values, Christian issue," said Eadington. "And under the new administration there's been some speculation that it may get revisited. Barney Frank, he's sort of the lead person on this. As with other prohibition issues, there are some good arguments you can make, because when you have illegal activities it creates opportunities for organized crime and you have a lot of other distortions."
Gambling Could Be HR Problem
While Uncle Sam has shown little interest in the Match Madness brackets being passed between cubicles, your boss may. But again, like with the government, gambling is not a high priority on employers' lists.
In a 2006 survey of 451 HR workers in The Society For Resource Management, only 14 percent said that their company had a gambling policy, and 7 percent said they had an unwritten gambling policy.
Of those that had a policy, 55 percent said disciplinary action, including termination, could result from violating the policy.