The New Jersey Attorney General's Office has sent cease and desist letters to five websites directing gamblers to illegal online gambling operations.

Letters sent April 17 warn that offering Internet gaming without approval is a fourth-degree crime in New Jersey, subject to fines of as much as $100,000.

The websites that received letters — RaketheRake.com, CardsChat.com,PokerSource.com, RakeBrain.com and PokerSites.com — are offering links to illegal online gambling websites alongside links to New Jersey's authorized operators, officials said.

"Any website that offers or displays such games through the Internet without the approval of NJDGE is violating the criminal laws of the state of New Jersey," Assistant Attorney General George Rover wrote.

The issue of illegal operators had been a point of focus at the East Coast Gaming Congress that took place at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa earlier this week.

The conference drawing roughly 600 industry experts began Monday with officials including New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement Director David Rebuck saying that illegal sites pose a threat to the state's business. The sites generally do not require players to divulge their identity or their addresses.

"We believe this may either taint legitimate sites by associating them with the illegal ones, and conversely may lend the appearance that these illegal sites are affiliated with authorized sites," Rebuck said Tuesday.

Regulators have also directly approached the sites operating illegally.

"The illegal websites should not underestimate the investigative capabilities and actions of the division," Rebuck said, adding that several have already stopped taking wagers from New Jersey residents.

New Jersey began offering Internet gambling in November. The state requires that online gambling firms partner with a land-based Atlantic City property. Casinos must hold an Internet gambling permit, and the online companies also had to receive approval for operation from the state. Currently 16 websites offered through seven casinos have been approved.

Illegal sites being promoted on RaketheRake.com include Bovada Poker, Merge Gaming, Black Chip Poker and America's Cardroom, Rover said in one of the letters.

"This letter shall serve as official notice that your website, by offering links to sites which may be offering unauthorized online gaming may be promoting activity that is contrary to New Jersey and federal law," Rover wrote. "The state of New Jersey reserves the right to pursue appropriate civil or criminal sanctions against you if you fail to take the requested actions."

Rebuck said the issue for regulators hinges on the fact that illegal sites do not adequately protect their players.

"These illegal sites do not offer the same protections to players, and we do not want these unregulated sites being promoted with our legal, regulated sites," Rebuck said. "The division hopes that by taking a strong stance against illegal websites and their promoters, the benefits of regulated online gaming will help drive illegal operators out of the marketplace and provide patrons far better protections."

Tropicana Casino and Resort issued a statement Tuesday supporting regulators' move to protect gamblers.

"Advertisements for illegal sites that are displayed side-by-side with legitimate casino operators not only create a misperception of legitimacy, it undermines the credibility of legitimate operatiors," the casino said.

Rebuck declined to quantify what the financial impact of quelling advertising of the illegal websites might be. However, he said the division believes there could be great opportunity for a company specializing in collectively marketing all of the state's legal sites.

Contact Jennifer Bogdan:

609-272-7239

Follow Jennifer Bogdan on Twitter @ACPressJennifer

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