Cyber Stakes

South Florida is at the heart of the Internet gambling boom -- and of the war to stop it

Steve Schillinger, age 45, is a partner in Sports Exchange and a fugitive from American justice. Rather than face criminal charges, he has decided to stay here and run the business. Co-owner Jay Cohen recently returned to New York to fight the government's accusations. Before coming to the island Schillinger was a trader on the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco. There he put on a tie each day. Now he is dressed in shorts, T-shirt, flip-flops, and wears his graying ponytail under a baseball cap. He used to scream out orders; now he works in relative quiet with only the clicking sound of computer keys.

Schillinger and his partner Cohen, another former stock trader and San Francisco sports fanatic, founded the Sports Exchange in October 1996. In less than two years they have signed up 4000 players, 2000 of whom bet at least once per week, Schillinger says. Hundreds of people make daily wagers. The company has customers from the United States, including many from South Florida. Most wagers are between $10 and $100, although Schillinger accepts bets as high as $5000. Almost all bets are taken over the Net, though the company also has an 800 number.

It is early evening. The second game of the NBA finals and several Major League Baseball contests are about to begin. The odds have been posted on the Sports Exchange Website and bets are pouring in. All players have made deposits with the company via wire or cashier's checks before game time. They can participate only as long as they keep money in their accounts. Each wager causes a computer to emit a sound, much like a piano note. A description of the wager, the amount, and the bettor's code name pops up on the screen. Sometimes so many e-mails arrive concurrently that the sound is like a piano riff. Schillinger says the business averages fifteen to twenty bets per minute as tip-off and the first pitch approach. "You should hear this place a half-hour before NFL games start on Sunday," he says. "Then it gets really crazy."

Schillinger insists his legal problems are the result of prosecutors' hypocrisy. "This is the government going after us when the states themselves are ripping off people on lottery bets," he says. "You have no real chance of winning the lottery, whereas with us you have a decent chance. We pay back about 97 percent of all the money bet. So who's ripping off whom? Also, we don't go out breaking anybody's arm because they didn't pay. We're much less trouble than a bookie.

"Some people just like to bet," he says. "They always have and they always will. Trying to stop them won't do any good. It's better to regulate it and tax it. I'd gladly pay more taxes if I could operate in the States."

The three Miami-Dade men charged on the same day as Schillinger are David Budin, age 65, his son Steven Budin, age 27, both of North Miami Beach; and Sandy Becher, age 30, of Aventura. They operated SDB Global, a Miami company that until recently advertised a sports betting Website registered in Costa Rica. None of the men would agree to be interviewed for this article. But public records reveal some details of their lifestyles.

David Budin is a businessman and gambler who was a director of two businesses that went bankrupt in the early 1980s, public records show. A third business that he directed closed in 1995. Today Budin owns a 28th floor penthouse at the posh Terraces of Turnberry. He drives a 1989 Mercedes 560 SEC.

And Budin, it seems, is a lucky bettor. On the last day of the horseracing season at Hialeah Race Track in March 1987, Budin picked eight of ten winners and raked in a jackpot, after taxes, of $173,167 on a two-dollar bet, according to the Miami Herald. And then something strange happened. Four stacks of cash totaling $20,000, part of Budin's winnings, disappeared from a counting room. Only Budin, a friend of his, and track officials were in the room, the Herald reported. Everyone denied taking the money. Budin left the track with the remaining $153,000 stuffed into a typewriter case. It is unclear how the dispute was resolved.

Steven Budin ran two music ventures that had closed by 1995. Despite that, he also lives well, records indicate. He owns a 1992 Mercedes 500 SC. In January 1993 he bought a $466,000 house on NE 207th Terrace.

Attorney Sandy Becher, the third defendant, served as a director in one of Steve Budin's music ventures. He later joined the father and son when they opened SDB Global, which advertised on the Internet and used an 888 number to accept bets.

All three men were charged as the result of a federal undercover operation based in New York City. FBI computer crimes specialist Lisa Ference swore in a March 2 affidavit that agents discovered ads for SDB Global in several football magazines during 1997. "Bet any sport, anytime, anywhere," read one. "Account is private and secure, not open to inquiry by any government agency ... Virtually no limits."

Ference said the SDB site encouraged Web surfers to open an account of at least $500. The site offered a telephone number for bets, 888-BET-EASY. Unlike many other Websites, bets couldn't be made over the Net or through SDB.

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