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Ever since the arrival of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, U.S. residents have found it increasingly difficult to play poker online. When the bill was passed in 2006, half of the market immediately withdrew, vastly decreasing the choices available to American players. The UIGEA did not target the act of gambling online, but prohibited it by the back-door by barring financial institutions from transferring money to online gambling websites. Now the country’s two biggest credit card providers, MasterCard and VISA, have joined the group of companies who will not allow their services to be used for any kind of online gambling transactions. Millions of Americans who fund accounts using their day-to-day debit and credit cards will now have to find different methods of payment or stop playing altogether.

ERG Magazine speculate that the card companies have been prompted to act by the outcome of a particular federal case. Canadian Douglas Rennick has been charged with illegally overseeing around $350 million worth of transfers to and from online gambling sites. His latest appeal concluded just a few weeks ago with the guilty verdict being upheld. Perhaps afraid of similar federal punishment, both MasterCard and VISA have decided to cut off all online gambling companies.

Different kinds of card payments are assigned a different four-digit code. These codes, agreed upon by all card companies, are used to help banks understand what kind of service they are transferring money to. Online gambling companies are supposed to use the code 7995, but MasterCard allege that countless firms are miscoding their payments in order to avoid a block. They cite a crackdown on this kind of deceit as the reason for the sudden upturn in gambling sites that no longer accept their cards.

Despite MasterCard’s claim, it does seem that they are disallowing online poker transfers that have nothing to do with miscoding. Customers making deposits on PokerStars have begun to report that their cards are being declined, despite having enough free cash to fund their accounts. PokerStars have issued a statement regarding the credit card issue, denying that they have been involved in miscoding. “PokerStars does not, nor ever has engaged in the practices of ‘mis-coded’ credit card transactions. We have therefore been unaffected by any crackdown by Visa or Mastercard to close down such ‘mis-coded’ accounts.” They also add weight to the claims that MasterCard and Visa are caving in to pressure from the UIGEA. “The only way that PokerStars is affected by credit card declines is when issuing banks in the United States decide that they will decline 7995 coded transactions.”

This is one of the most wide reaching clampdowns so far and will affect a huge portion of the online gambling user-base. However, most online poker players will already have faced problems depositing and withdrawing on their favorite sites. Many banks already decline simple transfers, forcing players to use eWallets like PayPal and Moneybookers. These options remain available and will likely become the de-facto choice for anyone looking to make a deposit. It is also important to note that these new blocks any apply to cards registered in the United States. Online gambling is not illegal in most other countries and most worldwide residents can continue to fund their online poker accounts just as they always have done.

Poker activists will be hoping that the MasterCard & VISA ban is short lived. The UIGEA does not technically come into effect until June 1st 2010, giving Congressman Barney Frank and his allies time to push through legislation designed at installing a legalized and regulated online gambling industry. If new bills are not introduced before the deadline, it could become even more difficult for U.S. citizens to play online poker.