Police have arrested 34 suspects in a raid on an alleged illegal sports gambling ring. According to police, the suspects' operation took in about NIS 340 million in the last two and a half years.
All 34 suspects were brought for remand yesterday to the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court. They were accused of running a well-oiled gambling operation since May 2007. The suspects include the owners of the Internet sites, its technical support workers, those who built the sites and those who organized groups of gamblers. The vast majority of the customers are not Israelis, and the sites are directed at markets outside of Israel.
The raid operation, named "Risky Bet," was a combined effort of the police, the Israel Tax Authority, the State Prosecutor's Office and Israel Money Laundering Prohibition Authority. Its planning goes back to the beginning of 2008, when intelligence information pointed out the main suspect, Avi Shauli, 38, a resident of Or Yehuda. He ran the bet555.net gambling site, which changed its name in January 2009 to betbet.us.
The profits on the equivalent of hundreds of millions of shekels in bets reportedly rose from 3 percent of the take at the beginning to more than 5 percent in its present form, making the owners millions. The site drew 70 million transactions from April 2007 to June 2009.
The investigation was led by the police's National Economic Crimes Unit and the anti-gambling force of the Lahav 433 unit. A law enforcement source said yesterday that in light of the huge amounts of money involved, it is possible that organized crime was pulling the strings behind the operation.
More than 300 police and Tax Authority investigators raided the homes of the suspects early yesterday morning. Dozens of gamblers were also invited for questioning, and the police seized equipment worth tens of millions of shekels.
A special team of prosecutors has been involved in the investigation since the beginning. The investigative team designed a plan to battle online gambling not only with the criminal charges of illegally operating betting sites and money laundering, but will also include tax offenses and attack the organization's economic infrastructure by confiscating assets.
The police seized dozens of vehicles and froze about 160 bank accounts belonging to some 20 suspects.
The accusations against the illegal gambling industry, and the suspects, include extortion and physical violence.
The lawyer for three of those arrested said yesterday the legal issues involved were complex, and that the Supreme Court had never ruled on the legality of Internet gambling. Therefore, he said, no crime has been committed.
Over the past decade Israel has become a world center for online gambling. Some of the biggest and most profitable Internet gambling sites belong to Israelis. In addition, Israelis are also involved in a considerable number of other Internet businesses that border on the edge of legality, pornography and selling drugs such as Viagra - the so-called PPP business, meaning pills, porn and poker.
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