In a significant victory for Visa, MasterCard, and several card-issuing banks, a federal judge in New Orleans has dismissed two class actions filed by people who lost money through Internet gambling and argued that they did not have to pay their card debts because the card companies were engaging in racketeering.

Dozens of lawsuits like this have been filed in state courts around the country, and at least one plaintiff has won debt forgiveness. But in the only federal cases so far, Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. of U.S. District Court in New Orleans ruled Feb. 26 that the plaintiffs did not show that the card companies were engaging in a “criminal enterprise,” merely that their line of business had inadvertently aided online casinos that would be illegal in the United States but were legal in their host countries.

The judge wrote in his decision that providing “important services to a racketeering enterprise is not the same as directing the affairs of the enterprise,” and that the use of particular payment cards at online casinos constitutes “a random intersection, not an ongoing organization.”

Last June the House Banking Committee approved legislation that would have made it illegal to use checks, credit cards, or other bank-issued instruments to gamble on the Internet. But the legislation died in the House.

In what is perhaps considered the seminal case in this area — and may well have encouraged copycat cases — a California woman sued MasterCard, Visa, and Providian Financial Corp. in 1998 after racking up $70,000 in card debt at various offshore casino Web sites. The woman, Cynthia J. Haines, argued that Internet gambling is illegal in California, so the companies acted wrongly in letting her use her credit cards, and that this relieved her of the obligation to pay.

Ms. Haines prevailed, with the court absolving her of the debts. The case led MasterCard in 1999 to publish payment guidelines for Internet casinos, which Visa had done already. The rules require casino operators to post notices that online gaming is illegal in some jurisdictions and that customers can be held liable for any bets they place.

In the federal cases, Judge Duval showed little sympathy for the gambling debtors. “Plaintiffs in these cases are not victims, they are independent actors who made a knowing and voluntary choice to engage in a course of conduct,” the judge wrote. “Litigation over their own actions arose only when the result of those actions became a debt that they did not wish to pay.”

The card companies were cheered by the ruling but said it might not close the door on the matter.

“We’re obviously very pleased on the decision,” said Eileen Simon, vice president and counsel to MasterCard International. But it is not the “death knell for other decisions. We are hopeful that this signals some skepticism as to the validity of these types of claims.”

At most Internet casinos, people buy virtual “chips” with credit cards and use them to play standard gambling games, such as roulette and blackjack. Steve Zelinger, director of litigation for Visa International, said Judge Duval’s decision made clear that the purchase of those chips does not constitute a gambling transaction. The person could decide not to gamble and could cash in all the chips. “It’s not our role to legislate people’s lives,” he said. “We’re not a police organization, we’re a payment mechanism.”

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