Online poker players have good reason to be concerned about the safety and security of the web sites on which they play. In 2007-08, cheating scandals involving UltimateBet and Absolute Poker demonstrated how vulnerable players could be to scams. In 2011, the events of Black Friday brought into question how safe player deposits might be in case of legal action against poker room operators.

With an estimated 613 different places to play online, how can one know which sites are truly safe? Fortunately, there are three indicators available that can help answer this question: where the site is located, what certifications it has received and how transparent its operations are. Players will want to investigate all three in the course of determining where to entrust their funds and play online.

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Licensing and Regulation

In order to operate as a business online, every Internet poker room must be registered and licensed by a national gaming authority. Operators seek out domiciles that offer tax benefits and a “gaming friendly” regulatory environment, such as small European nations or islands located in the Caribbean.

Not all national licensing authorities are the same, of course. Some are more committed to the welfare of players than others. Malta, for example, is the most active online gaming jurisdiction in the world, hosting some 508 gambling sites. The tiny Mediterranean state has been issuing licenses since 2000 under its Public Lotto Ordinance, and in 2007 it was added to the UK’s “White List” of countries matching England’s strict gaming codes.

Two of the most highly regulated locations for online poker rooms are Gibraltar—where Party Poker, Pacific Poker and 38 others are located—and the Isle of Man, home to the Microgaming Poker Network and the world’s #1 poker site, PokerStars. Other tightly controlled licensing locations are the United Kingdom, Kahnawake (Canada), Alderney (Channel Islands), and Antigua and Barbuda.

What makes these jurisdictions trustworthy is their reputation for ensuring that operations based there are run fairly. On the other hand, frequent problems have been reported among web sites licensed in the Netherlands Antilles (Curaçao), where controls are comparatively lax, while operations registered in Cyprus and Costa Rica also receive many complaints.

Proper Certification and Audit

In response to the online gaming industry’s need for credibility, a variety of impartial organizations have been created to certify the fairness of online casinos and poker rooms. Among them are eCommerce and Online Gaming Regulation and Assurance (eCOGRA), the Certified Fair Gambling (CFG) Certification Company, and software analyst Technical Systems Testing (TST).

Perhaps the most respected of these is London-based eCOGRA, which promotes player protection and best operational practices with emphasis on fair and responsible gambling. Since 2003, the eCOGRA “Safe and Fair” seal has been recognized as the highest industry level of safe and fair play. To qualify for certification, sites must demonstrate unquestionable professional conduct and superior operational performance.

Working with over 25 top software providers and 70 major online gaming operators, eCOGRA ensures that the very highest standards are maintained. As of 2011, no fewer than 145 web sites had been accredited based on fair gaming, responsible conduct and player protection. Poker rooms that have met eCOGRA’s criteria in the past include PokerStars, Doyles Room, Party Poker, Everest Poker, Paddy Poker and Bodog Poker (now Bovada Poker), to name a few.

Reputation and Support

A third way to identify the safest poker sites is to check with industry groups and trade media organizations that showcase reputable operators, while blacklisting unscrupulous sites. Watchdogs like CasinoMeister, CasinoCity and eGaming Review Magazine file regular reports on the fairness of online poker rooms. Overseers examine a variety of factors when evaluating a site, such as the following:

  • Does it have a clean history of fairness towards customers?
  • Is it able to take care of player issues quickly and professionally?
  • Does it advertise honestly, with no false, misleading or deceptive claims/offers?
  • Is the table of rake amounts clearly posted and easy to access?
  • Does it protect player funds and pay winnings in a timely manner?
  • Does it offer in-house player support?

One of the hallmarks of a safe and secure poker room is transparency of operations. That includes top-notch customer service. Customers should be able to access help quickly and receive clear answers to questions. Contact details such as phone numbers, email addresses and fax numbers must be easy to find on their web sites. Only poker sites that cater to customer needs professionally are worthy of players’ patronage.