Illegal Facebook gambling in Y-K Delta draws scrutiny

A bingo card
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Facebook groups where people play bingo and pull tabs illegally for cash have proliferated during the pandemic, drawing the State of Alaska’s attention and letters to cease and desist.

In early March, someone in a community near Bethel received a letter from the state gaming manager. It ordered them to stop conducting illegal gambling on Facebook and to turn in their gaming equipment and records to the state. The person who received the letter was startled. They contacted Anna Bill, tribal police officer in Mountain Village at the time.

“They asked me to take a look at it,” Bill said. “They were concerned about it.”

The person was concerned the letter was a scam, Bill said. So she contacted Alaska State Troopers, who told her the letter was very real.

Bill posted the letter to Facebook, with names redacted, to warn people the state was cracking down on online bingo games. She received messages from several people saying they’d received the same letter.

She’d heard from friends that these gambling groups had grown wildly popular, and decided to do some digging herself.

“I was just curious, like, what the heck was everybody ranting and raving about?” Bill said.

She found multiple Facebook groups, all using Facebook Live videos to conduct remote gambling.

“They would stream it,” Bill said. “They would open the rippies in front of their camera or in front of their phones.”

Rippies, also called pull-tabs, are like scratch-off lottery cards. The hosts of these games collect money through payment apps, and then open the pull-tabs on video on behalf of the players. In other groups, hosts call bingo games using bingo apps.

Bill found Facebook groups all over the Y-K Delta with hundreds of members, sometimes playing games for thousands of dollars.

“None of this was going on until COVID-19 started,” Bill said.

A moderator of one of these Facebook gambling groups in Bethel spoke with KYUK on conditions of anonymity. His group, which runs both bingo and pull-tab games, has several thousand members. He confirmed the pandemic spurred the rise of groups like his.

“What happened was COVID hit and they shut down the bingo hall,” the moderator said. “For those of us that don’t drink or anything else, that was our social life, you know? In Bethel, there’s not much to do.”

He said groups like his are providing a sense of community and social interaction that people are craving during the pandemic.

“It’s laughter, it’s fun, it’s connecting with people you haven’t talked to in a long time,” the moderator said.

But the state says gambling without a permit isn’t harmless fun. Katrina Mitchell is the state gaming manager who has been sending letters to Facebook gambling groups. Mitchell wrote in an email to KYUK that illegal gambling can divert funds from non-profits, cities, and tribes which raise money through legal charitable gambling.

Since the Kuskokwim 300 reopened its Bethel pull-tab booth in April after closing last fall, Race Manager Paul Basile said revenues remain 30% below what they were before the pandemic. He said that could be due to a variety of factors. For one, K300’s pull-tab booth requires patrons to be vaccinated. But he wonders if the rise of Facebook gambling is also playing a role.

“I think the important thing to note is that every dollar that people spend in illegal online gaming, on Facebook or elsewhere, is $1 that’s not going to a legitimate charity in their community,” Basile said.

Basile said most of K300 gaming profits go towards prize money for mushers.

The gambling group moderator argued money from Facebook raffles often goes toward unofficial charitable purposes.

“I don’t know how many funeral games that have been run and then paid for entire funerals, including the shipment of the body, for family members to fly to the funeral to say goodbye,” the moderator said.

Bill says there are other, legal ways to raise money.

“There’s, like, GoFundMe, you know, do a legit fundraiser. There’s the right way to do things and the wrong way to do things,” Bill said.

Bill has another problem with Facebook gambling that she thought of while she was watching a video of someone flipping coins.

“How accurate are any of these anyway?’” Bill said.

By accurate, she means, how fair are the games? Bill said that she’s seen accusations of cheating.

The gambling group moderator said a lot of the time, people choose to play in games where they know and trust the host. But when there are accusations of cheating, he said moderators of the group meet with the player and hear their complaint. Many times, he said, moderators just give the player their money back. But there’s no oversight into how conflicts are resolved. Moderators have all the power.

It’s not clear whether these Facebook gambling groups will be shut down. Mitchell said her department, the Department of Revenue, doesn’t have jurisdiction to enforce illegal gambling rules. Sgt. Teague Widmier said state troopers in Bethel aren’t going to open an investigation on Facebook gambling groups at this point, either.

“There’s a precedence on other crimes that are going to take an enforcement priority, such as sexual assault, sexual abuse of minors, domestic assaults, homicides,” Widmier said.

As COVID-19 case numbers have declined in the YK Delta and vaccinations have increased, community bingo halls are starting to open back up to in-person gambling. The gaming coordinator in Hooper Bay said bingo halls there are as full as they were before the pandemic. Despite that, Bill thinks virtual bingo and pull tabs are here to stay.

“I think it’s gonna continue past the pandemic,” Bill said. “There’s people that are, you know, like, introverts that will stay at home. I mean, it might not be as popular, but I’m pretty sure it’s still going to be going.”

The pandemic has given rise to legal online betting as well. In November, the state temporarily allowed charities with a gaming permit to conduct raffles and other contests online. The Kuskokwim Ice Classic was held online for the first time this year. Bethel Community Services Foundation Executive Director Michelle DeWitt wrote in an email that this year’s ticket sales were the highest in recent history. The Legislature is considering a bill that would make online charitable gambling legal permanently.