Saturday 30 November 2013

New laws to curb online gambling on the cards

Measures could include blocking websites and banning advertisements
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 29 Nov 2013

TAKING aim at the increasing popularity of online gambling in tech-savvy Singapore, the Government is now looking at a host of measures to curb the problem.

It wants to block access to illegal gambling websites, prevent payments to operators and ban advertisements for online gambling, Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran revealed yesterday.

The authorities are also considering whether to allow a limited form of legalised online gambling, so that gamblers do not end up resorting to illegal gambling and betting offline.

Following a public consultation exercise, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is aiming to implement the new laws by early next year - ahead of the football World Cup in Brazil - although Mr Iswaran said the timing is not "motivated by any particular event".

Rather, the move is prompted by the rise of remote gambling - through the Internet and mobile apps - an industry that was worth US$35 billion (S$43.9 billion) worldwide last year.

Analysts' estimates show that Singapore's remote gambling market is worth more than $370 million, and is expected to grow by 6 per cent to 7 per cent annually.

A recent MHA survey of 1,000 Internet users found that almost three in 10 had gambled remotely at least once in the past year, said Mr Iswaran, who is also Minister in the Prime Minister's Office.

"This is not surprising as one can gamble anonymously from almost any location at any time," he said.

The highly addictive nature of online gambling was another worry. A 2011 survey by the National Council for Problem Gambling found that online gamblers had worse self-control, were likely to gamble more often and for longer, and lost more than planned, compared with other gamblers.

"Remote gambling operations can potentially become a source or conduit of funds for other illegal activities and syndicated crime," said Mr Iswaran, who was speaking at the launch of the third biennial Singapore Symposium on Casino Regulation and Crime. "It is therefore important that we take proactive steps."

The measures being considered are "not foolproof", but current gambling laws need updating as they were enacted before the Internet era, he added.

The announcement was lauded by anti-gambling advocates and counsellors, who said the ease of online gambling can make it more dangerous than casino gambling.

Mr Gerald Goh, deputy director of Thye Hua Kwan Problem Gambling Recovery Centre, said: "I have seen youth, who are not old enough to get into casinos, using their mobile devices to place football bets."

But One Hope Centre executive director Dick Lum is worried that a clampdown could push hardcore gamblers to gamble illegally offline. "If you block a website, they can go elsewhere," he said.

In his speech, Mr Iswaran noted how Hong Kong allows a limited form of online gambling on horse racing, football and lottery via its Jockey Club. He said a similar model may be considered here.

The Government will also strengthen public education, given the rise of social media games mimicking casino games that can desensitise youth to gambling.

The public can give its feedback on the proposals through the REACH website from today.

Gambling via phones too easy
Online betting sites attract smartphone users who are young and tech-savvy
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 29 Nov 2013

WHILE many train commuters update their Facebook profiles or watch movies on their smartphones during their evening journey, James (not his real name) is using his phone for another purpose: Getting real-time updates on a football match in Europe.

He has placed a $100 wager on the match via an online betting website, which offers him second-by-second developments on the field such as which side is on the offensive and where a free kick is about to take place.

With just a few taps, the communications manager, who declined to give his name, has put down another $100, this time on the opposing team. This is what "in-running betting" is about, he said.

The 27-year-old said if he is confident of an outcome, he will hedge his bets to cover his losses. Sometimes, he can have $1,500 riding on 10 different matches simultaneously.

"Singapore Pools also offers live betting but it's quite tedious, you have to be a member and do it in person or through the phone," he said.

The ease with which any person with a smartphone and a bank account can bet online 24/7 is likely the reason the authorities here are considering new legislation to outlaw online gambling sites.

Popular gambling websites, often optimised for mobile devices, have features that allow users to place bets securely through their smartphones.

Local customers - typically of ages between 21 and 45 - can place bets on a wide range of sports, from football and snooker to tennis.

Casino games such as slots and poker are also popular among online gamblers here. According to data from Britain-based Global Betting and Gaming Consultants (GBGC), jackpot games appeal to a younger crowd, while older players are drawn to table games.

When it comes to cashing out or topping up their accounts, gamblers find it a breeze. Electronic wallet providers let a punter transfer funds directly to and from his bank account, and players can also use credit card services to bankroll their gambling.

"It's safe and I can get my money back easily and they always have rebates," said 25-year-old Nathaniel (not his real name) who is self-employed. He spends about $500 a week gambling online.

Thanks to punters like him, online gambling sites have found a gold mine in Singapore. These sites raked in US$383 million (S$481 million) from Singapore punters last year, up from some US$300 million in 2011, according to the GBGC. More than 95 per cent of the revenue last year was generated by e-gaming operators outside Singapore.

Experts said Singaporeans who gamble the most online are mostly in their teens or aged between 20 and 30; they are also typically male and tech-savvy.

Many of the clients who have been advised by Mr Gerald Goh, deputy director of THK Problem Gambling Recovery Centre, fit this profile. Hence, he welcomes plans by the authorities to curb online gambling. "The restrictions will protect the young and vulnerable because while we have social safeguards for visiting the casinos, the young can still access the sites via their mobile devices," he said.

Other experts, however, are not so sure. GBGC chief executive Warwick Bartlett said a complete ban on gambling sites has proven ineffective in some European markets.

Hardcore gamblers will always find a way to circumvent the ban and still be able to gain online access somehow, he said. "Rather than introduce an outright ban, we would suggest limiting the legal supply by restricting advertising and to make the licence cost high, which will reduce the number of operators," added Mr Bartlett.

While the planned legislation is aimed at curbing online gambling involving "virtual cash", there have been concerns among some about the rising popularity of social media games like Zynga Poker which simulate gambling.

There are no plans as yet to legislate this category of online games but the Home Affairs Ministry recognises that it is a "rapidly evolving" area, said a spokesman.

She added that the Ministry of Social and Family Development and National Council on Problem Gambling "will broaden and intensify public education efforts to raise awareness in this area".

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