Online Gambling: Whose Gamble Is It?

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Bet you didn't know that if you were to venture into an online, virtual casino, you would likely lose your money twice as fast as you would in a real-life casino, according to Newsweek magazine. Perhaps it's the anonymity, the solitary nature, or the absolute ease of merely entering a credit card number without ever leaving the comfort of your chair that makes online gambling so hard to walk away from. Whatever the reason, since the first online casino went up in 1985, gambling has become one of the Internet's fastest-growing industries, garnering roughly a 4% share of all e-commerce transactions. As with Internet pornography, industry-wide revenue figures are elusive, but the U.S. General Accounting Office estimates that $5 billion was spent on online gambling in 2002, with about 2 million people visiting online casinos or placing bets every week. (Stats are not yet available for the expected spike on Super Bowl Sunday, the biggest sports-betting event of the year.)

While the commercial casino industry does do its part to fund help programs and sponsor research into the causes and treatment of compulsive gambling, many legislators feel government regulation is necessary, particularly to protect and prevent children-as well as problem gamblers-from playing. Unfortunately, the most recent law governing the gambling industry was enacted in 1960, long before the digital age. While several bills have since been introduced in Congress addressing improprieties within the industry, none has passed. Without legislation, it is impossible to know what the odds of winning are (which is a standard requirement of contests of any sort), and equally as impossible to hold an online casino to any ethical or legal standard.

Unlike brick-and-mortar casinos, their online counterparts are virtually impossible to regulate because the businesses offering these activities online regularly camouflage or fake their names and IP addresses to cover their tracks, and because a majority of gaming sites are operated offshore, outside the legal limits of the law. As hard-hit credit-card institutions are trying to distance themselves from the gambling industry by refusing to process payments from Internet gambling sites, sophisticated online casinos merely mask their names or their codes to reflect a different type of purchase or a different type of establishment. With this procedure they are actually dodging two bullets: 1) the justice system in case they are breaking any laws, and 2) the financial threat of non-payment by credit-card companies.

In addition to the headaches the online gambling industry is causing federal lawmakers and law enforcers, the industry is also inflicting a giant migraine on business owners, large and small. Believe it or not, most of the action at Internet gambling sites occurs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., when America is "working." Besides the wasted time and obvious loss of productivity through bandwidth slow-downs, employers may also face legal action if illegal activities are taking place on company-owned PCs, or even the possibility of being sued by employees who blame the company for compulsive habits developed while at work.

But with all of the escalating problems associated with Internet gambling, none is quite as worrisome as the easy access that children and teens have to gambling websites, many of which lack adequate safeguards and warnings to prevent under-age gamblers from participating in illegal activities. No matter how muddy or complex the law is from state to state, every state unequivocally prohibits gambling by minors. The Federal Trade Commission has issued a strong warning to parents of the dangers faced by their youth, particularly the threat of addiction, not to mention the loss of money and good credit.

When all is said and done, prevention is always the best medicine. To help prevent a gambling addiction from invading your home or pocketbook, we suggest investing in a good, comprehensive Internet filter that allows you to customize your blocking preferences, such as Net Nanny. And since flashy gambling ads with their promises of easy riches frequently pop onto your computer screen even if you haven't previously visited such sites, a simple popup blocker might be the answer. Check out PopupProtect for the latest in easy-to-use popup management tools. If, on the other hand, you have at any time been a participant in one of the many forms of online gambling, you have probably noticed an influx in your inbox of invitations to come back. Marlene Maheu, a California psychologist who specializes in Internet addictions says online gambling sites chase you "like a bad relationship. It keeps coming after you."

If it's too late for prevention, don't delay getting help. A number of organizations offer free or low-cost help for compulsive gamblers and their families:

Gamblers Anonymous (www.gamblersanonymous.org) or call (213) 386-8789
Gam-Anon (www.gam-anon.org) or call (718) 352-1671
National Council on Problem Gambling (www.ncpgambling.org) or 1-800-522-4700

Online gambling in a nutshell: the law is being circumvented, businesses are heavily impacted, and families are suffering both from addiction and loss of funds. Whose gamble is it?