SAN FRANCISCO – Millions of U.S. online gamblers – and the offshore companies that take their bets over the Internet – began scrambling to find workarounds Monday after Congress passed a law meant to quash the burgeoning business of online wagering.

The new rules, which were approved by lawmakers, now await President Bush’s signature to become law, would ban U.S.-based banks or credit card companies from processing payments for gambling activities that are illegal here.

Some of the estimated 12 million to 20 million U.S. online gamblers, commiserating in online forums, already said they planned to set up overseas bank accounts.

Together, those gamblers contribute more than half the industry’s estimated worldwide annual revenue of $12 billion, according to estimates provided by University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Online gambling firms, meanwhile, may respond with tactics that could include a step straight out of the Wild West – taking payment in gold or silver rather than cash.

“This is a smart industry, there’ll be hundreds of workarounds,” said Jay Bailey, director of development for the National Right To Online Gaming, a three-month-old entity with 20,000 gamblers.

Based on Monday’s stock trading in London, Internet gambling firms may need to act fast to save their industry. The U.S. legislation pummeled the shares of U.K.-based Internet companies that get the majority of their revenue from U.S. poker and sports bettors.

Two of the firms called off merger talks, while several more gambling sites began telling customers they will not sign up U.S. customers once the legislation becomes law.

According to Bailey, several gambling sites are already part-owners of commodities companies. That could allow them to steer customers to their commodities and set up payment accounts, which could use precious metals or other commodities as currency for payment.

Still, it’s not clear whether such a strategy would circumvent the rules – which direct the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve to force U.S. financial institutions to block payments from the U.S. to offshore gambling companies.

The rules, may be interpreted as allowing some types of payments while blocking others, may be difficult to enforce.

A more straightforward way to challenge the rules would be to lobby major U.S. trading partners to petition the World Trade Organization to block the U.S. move to end online gambling.

“Should a large trading partner with a legal, regulated Internet gambling industry step in, the Bush administration would be forced to respond,” Andrew Parmentier, senior analyst with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. Inc. noted .

Several of the largest online gambling sites, including PartyGaming, 888 Holdings, Sportingbet and World Gaming PLC, are based in the U.K., where online gambling is legal.

Other gambling firms are contemplating setting up Internet networking technology in countries outside the United States as a way of skirting the new rules, Bailey said.

One oft-cited workaround is for online gamblers to sign-up for credit cards with firms located outside North America, or establish bank accounts outside the United States.

At least some gamblers believe that strategy will allow them to successfully skirt the law, according to a posting on the Web site www.pocketfives.com, which calls itself the Online Poker Authority.

“If my address credentials are non-U.S., it is therefore legal for my funds to be transferred,” said Chris H., who said he is planning on circumventing the proposed law.


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