Bloomberg News

NEW YORK - American Express Co., MasterCard International Inc., and banks such as Chase Manhattan and MBNA America Bank have engaged in illegal bookmaking by letting customers amass credit card debt at illegal online casinos, a series of lawsuits allege.

Gamblers who used their credit cards to wager $60 to more than $10,000 at offshore casinos claim in 10 lawsuits filed in federal court that MasterCard, American Express, and 10 other financial institutions are aiding illegal offshore betting parlors and should be barred from collecting the gambling debts.

The plaintiffs seek class-action status. Their complaints, filed Tuesday in New York, are the latest in a series of similar lawsuits against MasterCard, Visa International Inc., and dozens of banks, all of which are pending in federal court in New Orleans.

The newest suits, which will be transferred to New Orleans, are the first to name American Express and the 10 banks, said a plaintiffs' lawyer, James Johnson.

The suits contend the casinos are violating U.S. telephone and wire laws against unregulated gambling and that the credit card companies are aiding the renegade casinos. The plaintiffs have asked the court to declare their gambling debts void.

An American Express spokeswoman said the company would not comment on the suit but, in general, does not let its cards be used for online gambling. A representative of MasterCard could not be reached to comment.

The others named in the new complaints are Fleet Bank of Rhode Island, Central Carolina Bank & Trust Co., People's Bank Corp., Bank of America, Citibank, Citigroup Inc., and First USA Bank.

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