05/29/2003 12:00AM

Visa policy may restrict bettors


Visa International, the credit-card company that sponsors the Triple Crown, has recommended that its issuing banks put in place enhanced restrictions on doing business with gambling sites, leading to problems for customers hoping to deposit money in their accounts at legal horseracing account-wagering operations.

The restrictions are already preventing some horseplayers from depositing money at popular wagering sites likes Youbet.com, Television Games Network, and AmericaTab using credit cards backed by Visa, account-wagering officials said Thursday. Visa asked its member banks to consider the new restrictions in late May, according to an article published in the L.A. Daily News last week.

Rhonda Bentz, a spokeswoman for Visa, said Thursday that the restrictions were not intended to specifically block customers of horseracing sites. But the restrictions were designed to protect Visa's member banks from doing business with internet gambling sites, Bentz said. The decision to block the accounts was up to the member banks, Bentz said.

Mark Wilson, the chief executive officer of TVG, said that he believed Visa would make changes to the way that the system is now set up so that TVG and other sites are exempt.

"We're confident that once Visa takes a look at this, it will create a new merchant protocol that differentiates between us and the true targets of this policy," Wilson said in a prepared statement.

Most U.S. account-wagering sites allow customers to make deposits using credit and debit cards, in addition to personal checks and specialized internet cash transactions. Using credit and debit cards to make deposits has become one of the most popular methods of funding an account because the transactions are nearly instantaneous and, in the case of debit cards, relatively cheap or even free.

Visa's restrictions were implemented just two weeks before the running of the Belmont Stakes, the last leg of the Visa-sponsored Triple Crown. If Funny Cide wins the Belmont, Visa will award his owners a $5 million bonus.

According to a letter Youbet.com officials sent to its customers on Saturday, cards backed by other credit-card companies do not appear to be affected. In the letter, Youbet.com warned some of its customers that "Visa cardholders are experiencing higher rates of rejection when attempting to fund their accounts." The letter recommended that accountholders use MasterCard-backed cards or the company's ExpressCash service to deposit money.

Todd Bowker, the general manager of Ohio-based AmericaTab, a collection of websites that takes wagers on horseracing, said that its customers have not experienced any measurable increase in problems using Visa cards since the restrictions were put in place. Bowker said, however, that its customers periodically experience funding problems with a variety of cards, although the problems have not significantly impacted handle through the sites.

"We've always found ways to let our customers fund their accounts," Bowker said. "It doesn't appear to have gotten any worse over the past several weeks."

The U.S. Congress has recently discussed legislation that would prohibit any deposits to gambling sites using credit cards and debit cards. The legislation was written to target illegal offshore gambling sites that offer casino-type betting and wagering on sports and horseracing.