Are NCAA Betting Pools Illegal?

The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments are in their second week. In the days leading up to the events, law-abiding citizens around the country dug into their wallets to participate in betting pools. Are these pools illegal? Can you be prosecuted for e-mailing or faxing dozens of friends and inviting them to one?

Most forms of gambling, including betting pools, are illegal in nearly all states. (The law often exempts certain licensed charitable organizations, such as churches that sponsor raffles; and of course some states allow casino gambling and sponsor lotteries.) In Vermont, however, residents can legally participate in NCAA tournament pools: Just last year, the state passed a law allowing people to participate in so-called noncommercial forms of betting, in which a winner (or a charity) receives all the money.

No matter where you live, however, it is illegal to make interstate telephone calls to participate in a betting pool, and probably illegal to use the Internet to do so. The 1961 federal Wire Act prohibits using phone lines to place or accept bets across state lines; each violation can carry a two-year prison term and a fine up to $5,000. Whether this law applies to the Internet is unclear, though the federal government has used it as justification for prosecuting some companies that run Web-based gambling sites. Last November, the Senate passed a bill that aims to ban Internet gambling more definitively; the bill has been referred to a House subcommittee for consideration.

For more on the legality of Internet gambling, see this Washington Post article. Click here to see an updated men’s bracket.

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