Not Coming Up Trumps

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Beware the dangers of gambling online.

It may surprise readers to know that one of the most lucrative industries online is one which, up until recently, has had very little public face - the world of online gambling.

Most internet users will only have noticed these online casinos when confronted with the occasional 'pop-up' window advertising the services of one or more of the hundreds of companies that allow punters to bet online. However, more recently there has been a trend towards more mainstream advertising - some national newspapers have run ads for some of the larger companies, there's plenty of advertising across London's underground system, and you even see it on the side of taxis.

Much of this advertising explains just how 'easy' it is to play online, even in some cases going through a report of an evening's gaming, together with the obligatory jackpot win at the end.

The reality, of course, as with any gaming venue online or otherwise, is that ultimately the only real winner is the casino. A Guardian business story in March explained how the company behind 'Party Poker', the world's most successful online poker website, made a profit last year of $350 million and may hit profits of $600 million this year. This is remarkable for a company that didn't exist four years ago. The company claims that at the most popular times over 70,000 people play simultaneously online.

Predictably, the British government's concerns with online gambling, outlined in their forthcoming bill, are not particularly with the social problems of gambling, but with the loss of revenue - there is still no clear way to tax the proceeds (and the winnings) of the industry.

The murky world of online gambling is thus further confused because most companies that host such sites aren't based in the countries of the punters they are trying to fleece - for instance 'Party Poker' is based in Gibraltar, as are the companies that own the famous 888.com gambling website and British bookies Ladbrokes.

The government's flagship Gambling Bill aims to regulate the online industry, and alter the law in ways that will enable companies to be based in Britain. Stung by criticism of online gaming practices, the industry is keen that the law is passed, saying it will bring both jobs and money to the British economy.

Whether or not the bill is passed before the election, the problems of online gambling remain. Recent studies have shown how simple it is for under-18s to get an account at most online casinos, simply by lying about their age. While we should be wary of falling into a moral panic about children gambling online, bear in mind how these casinos market themselves as easy to use. The graphics are swish and realistic: they offer practice rooms where you can gamble without spending any cash before moving on to the real arena. The advertising highlights how easy it is to play and win, and they all trade on the excitement of the casino tables - once hidden away from sight, now available online for everyone.

There are other pitfalls too. If you go into a casino, you can only spend what you have in your pocket - online, whatever losses you do make are automatically deducted from your credit card.

The reality of online gambling is of course that people will be tricked into losing large amounts of cash, yet the consequences for those who lose everything will be the same as those who spend their last pennies in the bookies on a losing horse.

It seems to me that the betting industry has simply found a new way of making losing money easier, more addictive and easily available to a new generation of users. For those who do get trapped, the support that does exist is limited and under-resourced - simply compare the online presence of Gamblers Anonymous UK with that of the biggest online gaming dens.