Beware the slippery slope of online gambling

EVERY week, I receive e-mail from local gaming company Singapore Pools that highlights some of the football matches that will be played around the world in the coming days.

The e-mail is chock-full of statistics, the latest betting odds, the teams' recent form in all the competitions, and also the results of their last five head-to-head meetings.

I began to get this regular newsletter of sorts after I signed up for a Singapore Pools account at the end of October, a few days after the operator launched its new online betting service.

I don't consider myself a compulsive or big-time gambler by any means. I do, however, enjoy the occasional flutter whenever there's a big event taking place, such as the annual Toto Hongbao draw (this year's prize was S$13.9 million) or major football tournaments such as the Fifa World Cup or European Championships.

After I covered the news from Singapore Pools and the Singapore Turf Club that they would roll out Web-based betting services, my curiosity was sufficiently piqued to give it a try.

s I'm not a big fan of horse-race betting (which is what the Turf Club specialises in), I got myself a Singapore Pools account that would allow me to wager on the lotteries (4D and Toto), football, and motorsports.

The registration process is simple enough.

First, it's stated that a customer has to be at least 21 to get an account. Among other things, the website requires you to input your personal details, and indicate the maximum daily amount that you're willing to deposit and bet.

Once that's done, you have to head down to any Singapore Pools outlet and present your identity card to a teller, who verifies your identity and age on the spot.

The operator then carries out the necessary checks with the National Council on Problem Gambling, to ensure that an applicant is not among the 51,000 individuals currently on the casino exclusion list.

After a wait of about five days, I finally got the all-clear and was ready to begin my online gambling experience, using either my smartphone or computer.

At the Singapore Pools website, the first step is to key in your username and password, and then a six-digit one-time password that is sent to your registered mobile number. This is the two-factor authentication.

Placing a bet is as easy as 1-2-3. For a start, you have to deposit some money inside.

You can do this in several ways, such as using a top-up card or online through eNets.

There's usually a whole bunch of football games lined up over the next few days, and there are all types of bets to pick from. Click on the bet of your choice, enter the stake, hit "submit", and you're all set.

Should you win, the total amount (initial bet and winnings) will be credited to your account in a matter of minutes.

The online service is 24/7, and punters can place bets even while the matches are in progress - yes, even at 4am in the morning during those Champions League games.

I've also placed bets of as little as S$1 each, for a specific team to score the next goal or on the exact half- time score. The possibilities are endless.

What a joy, I thought, to be able to carry out all my betting transactions in the palm of my hand, in the comfort of my home, instead of having to trot down to a physical outlet, shade those slips of paper, and then join the queue to make the payment.

Then, if I win, I have to return the next day, get in line again, and wait to claim my winnings.

When news of the online betting service was first announced in September, the Home Affairs Ministry explained that it was not possible to fully eradicate unauthorised remote gambling in Singapore, even with robust enforcement and tight blocking measures.

Getting hooked

However, the authorities are also not in favour of a complete ban, as this would drive remote gambling activities underground and exacerbate law-and-order concerns.

Those worries are justified. The global market for remote gambling is estimated to be worth about US$40 billion a year, and growing at a rate of 6-8 per cent each year.

There are also concerns over loan shark activities and money laundering, among others.

My take is that while the online betting services by Singapore Pools and the Turf Club will entice some of those already engaging in illegal betting to switch over, there is a fear that casual gamblers will be hooked and inevitably venture out to the casinos or elsewhere to feed the gambling habit.

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The online betting avenue could also inadvertently attract more first-time punters who might not even have thought about betting on anything in the first place.

Like it or not, it's in our human nature to get a high from taking risks with one's money, even if it's just a dollar or two.

The exuberance when your numbers match the first prize on the 4D draw, or when your team wins the match, produces this natural high.

It's a good thing that the move to exempt the two operators from the existing Remote Gambling Act is not permanent, but only for the next three years.

There will be an opportunity to make a U-turn on the exemption should the problem-gambling issue worsen.

The authorities must be decisive and act quickly if the addiction numbers go up - if only to prevent more people from sliding down this slippery slope.

This article was first published on December 21, 2016.
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