Starr County attorney seeks to crack down on illegal online raffles

Illegal raffles, loterías and pyramid schemes are the focus of a new effort by the Starr County attorney’s office to prosecute illegal gambling which has been popping up more online as a result of the global pandemic, according to Starr County Attorney Victor Canales.

Canales’ office announced they would begin enlisting local law enforcement to help investigate those types of gambling which he said had increased over the past months on Facebook.

“Ways of entertainment suddenly popped up, new ways that we hadn’t seen before,” Canales said. “Among them were raffles and the loterías, which is the Mexican version of Bingo, and they were doing it electronically.”

Though from the get-go he said he believed them to be illegal, Canales said he held off on trying to shut them down given the extraordinary circumstances of people who were quarantined at home likely looking for some sort of diversion.

“Initially, these were small games, very low stakes,” Canales said, describing raffles and games which awarded roughly $20 or $30.

“Then you started seeing bigger and bigger,” he said. “And now we come to the present day where what prompted me and spurred me to start looking at things is we had a situation where an individual created a lotería of 100 numbers and $75 a number.”

After the organizer sold those 100 numbers, they proceeded to delete their profile after receiving the $7,500.

In the aftermath of that, Canales said people began complaining and then some were encouraged to go to their banks and claim that what they were charged for the game were unauthorized transactions.

“This is what basically spurred me to start looking at this because up until that point, I had not seen any stakes that were that high,” Canales said.

Since then, though, he’s come to find that they’re commonplace.

He explained that raffles organized by someone who is not a qualified nonprofit corporation, not a qualified religious organization, or not otherwise authorized by the state, were all illegal.

“As long as it’s something of value and as long as it’s a chance thing,” he said. “Same thing with eight-liners, if it’s a game of chance, it’s illegal.”

There is a difference though, Canales clarified, with lotería and poker games often played at home or with friends.

“If you put $100 into the pot and you pay out those $100, that’s not illegal,” he said. “The house is not taking a cut; the house is not taking a profit. It is not illegal; it is called a neighborhood game.”

If the organizer of the game does keep something to make money, then it is illegal, he said.

Canales said there’s been fear among people that their relatives would be prosecuted for playing in raffles with prizes of Origami Jewelry or benefiting cancer patients, however, he said that while he maintains those are still illegal, practical limitations would prevent them from prosecuting those types of games.

“I doubt that we have the manpower to be looking at those kinds of games,” Canales said. “Because as people have pointed out, and they are correct, there are much more serious crimes out there such as murders, such as child abuse, such as large quantities of drugs.”

Still, he stressed that these types of schemes weren’t victimless crimes and those playing them were typically vulnerable people with not much money to begin with.

“Theft of this magnitude is also wrong and it is also a very important thing to stop because you have individuals that are taking $2,000 a game, running two games a day; just imagine those numbers,” he said, adding that in 10 days, that person could make about $40,000.

“We’re going to be looking at these bigger games, we’re not going to be looking at the smaller Origami Owl-type games where people raffle off Herbalife or something along those lines, something trivial like that,” Canales added. “We’re looking at games where large amounts of money are being used at this point.”

Organizers of those types of illegal raffles could face being charged with a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $4,000 and up to two years in prison.

Those participating in them, could be charged with a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500.