Online betting explosion sees companies targeting vulnerable punters

Online sports betting is growing fast and it can be so devastating that financial counsellors are calling on the Government to rein in the big betting companies that are using dubious practices to hook in punters.

LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Betting on sport has never been easier. Hundreds of thousands of gamblers now bet online on their smartphones or tablets or computers. For many, it's harmless, but not always. In some cases, gamblers have lost everything in a few clicks of a button. Online sports betting is growing so fast that financial counsellors are calling on the Government to reign in the big betting companies and crack down on the ways they entice punters. The Federal Government did announce a review this week. Here's reporter Lorna Knowles.

LORNA KNOWLES, REPORTER: It's Tuesday evening and Darren and his mates are catching after work for a few beers and a punt on the dogs.

Just a few years ago, they would have placed their bets at the TAB or with a bookie. Now having a flutter is as easy as clicking a button on their smartphone.

DARREN: You never miss a race, I guess. You're always in control of what you're doing and you keep track of it exactly, your history of betting as well, so you know if you're going too hard or - yeah, or if you're going well.

LORNA KNOWLES: The sports betting industry is exploding. Globally, online sports betting accounts for more than 41 per cent of the industry's total value. In Australia that figure is almost 14 per cent and climbing. But there's a dark side to the brave new world of gambling.

Anthony Robinson has always enjoyed a punt, but six years ago he began betting online and his gambling quickly got out of control.

ANTHONY ROBINSON: I've never seen a game of softball live, but I can have a bet on it. It escalated from May till November; from a $5,000 original credit limit, I'd spent $980,000.

LORNA KNOWLES: He was targeted by various sports betting agencies and they treated him like royalty, until the money ran out.

ANTHONY ROBINSON: They will take you to the footy. I been to the Bledisloe Cup matches, I've been to AFL matches, you know, Racing Carnival in the VIP tents and all this sorta rubbish. And it's all just to say, "Hey, why don't you have another bet today?"

LORNA KNOWLES: His gambling cost him two relationships and a successful business.

ANTHONY ROBINSON: It doesn't seem like real money, until your wife walks out the door or the kids leave, then it seems real.

LORNA KNOWLES: It's a story that's painfully familiar to this Melbourne mum. Francesca's son had just sold his house for $150,000 and managed to lose the lot on four AFL matches. She asked to remain anonymous to protect his identity.

FRANCESCA, MOTHER: When he told me, my blood had run cold. From my head down to my toes, I was just frozen. I couldn't believe it and I says, "Why would you bet that type of money?" And he says, "I don't know, Mum. I don't know."

LORNA KNOWLES: Her shock soon turned to anger and she contacted a manager at Sportsbet, the agency her son was using

FRANCESCA: I told him what my son had done, that he'd lost all this money on sports bets and that it's wicked of them to take such huge amounts of money off anybody.

LORNA KNOWLES: Francesca wanted to know why there were no laws in place to protect problem online gamblers like her son. One of the first calls she made was to Lauren Levin from Financial Counsellors Australia.

LAUREN LEVIN, FINANCIAL COUNSELLING AUSTRALIA: We see the gloss of sports betting, we see the advertising at the football and it's portrayed as a bit of fun, but there are all these really awful things happening - happening behind the scenes.

LORNA KNOWLES: Francesca's story features in a new report on the impact of uncontrolled sports betting.

LAUREN LEVIN: What seems to happen is that people are gambling without any restraint. All you need is a smartphone or a computer and it's very easy to keep it hidden.

LORNA KNOWLES: In some cases, punters see suicide as the only escape.

LAUREN LEVIN: I spoke to one fellow last week who told me that he had everything ready. He had his life insurance in order, his superannuation beneficiary nomination because he was just he just - it was just so awful. And his marriage - his marriage was breaking up.

LORNA KNOWLES: Of particular concern is the new trend of live or "in play" betting online. It's only legal to bet on live events in person or on the phone, but companies are getting around this rule by instructing clients to simply turn on the microphone on their computer or mobile app.

PAM MUTTON, FINANCIAL COUNSELLOR: I think it's possibly the most dangerous form of gambling we are about to face. I don't think it's really hit as an issue just yet, but the escalation of it will make pokies look like a picnic.

LORNA KNOWLES: Pam Mutton is appalled by the tactics sports betting companies are using to lure punters.

PAM MUTTON: It's fast, it's online, it's wherever you are, it's on your phone. It never goes away. It's constantly sending you emails and requests: "Have a punt on this".

NICK XENOPHON, INDEPENDENT SENATOR: This practice of unsolicited offers of inducements is absolutely predatory by these companies and it's allowed under Australian law.

LORNA KNOWLES: Independent Senator Nick Xenophon want the big sports betting agencies reigned in. He's particularly concerned that they're offering punters loans without any of the usual credit checks.

NICK XENOPHON: The great irony here is that a bank, any financial institution would be governed by provisions of consumer credit legislation, yet these companies can offer massive amounts of credit and people can get into a lot of trouble very quickly without any regulatory framework because they are not charging interest.

LORNA KNOWLES: The Government has announced a review of online gambling legislation to be headed by Social Services Minister Scott Morrison.

SCOTT MORRISON, SOCIAL SERVICES MINISTER (Sept. 7): Some reports suggest that problem gamblers are three times more likely in the interactive space. Problem gambling is an addiction and it's an addiction that those who suffer from this seek to hide. And the opportunities to hide that gambling addiction in the online space are obviously greater than in the social settings.

NICK XENOPHON: This inquiry only does half the job because half of the money lost on online gambling in this country comes from authorised sites, about a billion dollars a year. To ignore those sites and to only focus on the illegal sites overseas is really a copout.

LORNA KNOWLES: 7.30 approached the Wagering Council and two major sports betting companies. None were available for interview.

Any reforms will come too late for Anthony Robinson, but may spare others from his bitter experience

ANTHONY ROBINSON: It's OK to tell someone about it. You don't have to get to the stage I got to, you know, and pretty much lose everything and hurt people around you, people you love. So please tell someone

Source: 7.30 Report, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Broadcast: 10/09/2015 Reporter: Lorna Knowles and Jodie Noyce

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