Hong Kong provides huge market for illegal betting websites, investigator says

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 5:23am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 June, 2014, 6:50am

Hong Kong's multibillion-dollar illegal gambling habit has been built on sports betting but increasingly sophisticated online bookmakers - operating from servers around the region - are now offering punters a dizzying array of betting options.

Bookmaking experts point to sites like Citibet, which offer odds on foreign exchange movement, commodity prices and on how stock markets will move.

"The world's troubled financial system has often been put down to so-called 'casino banking' and the stock markets likened to casinos. Well here it is for real: illegal bookmakers offering bets on those very markets," said an investigator from Hong Kong. "It may sound harmless to some, but with the amounts of money involved in global black market betting there is a real chance they could become just that."

Last month, in a groundbreaking report, the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS), a not-for-profit organisation - ironically, based in Doha, Qatar which is at the centre of a corruption scandal over Qatar's winning bid for the 2022 Fifa World Cup - said that 80 per cent of sports bets placed globally were "transacted illegally".

In an extensive report it described the character of bets in Asia as "uncontrollable" and said the region was one of the main drivers of a black market which "threatens the very foundation of sport".

"Hong Kong provides a huge market for these overseas-based websites - mostly operated out of the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia - and increasingly we are seeing major players, some of whom are involved in the Macau casino junket business, getting involved because they see the massive potential to make money with relatively little outlay," said the Hong Kong-based investigator.

The ICSS report also highlighted the clear nexus between the growing problem of soccer- match fixing and illegal bookmaking.

It says betting fraud, not match-fixing, should be the main target for those fighting for cleaner sport and called for a global crusade against the threat, mainly from Southeast Asia, to sport.

The report also said criminals were using sports betting to launder US$140 billion per year.

ICSS sport integrity director Chris Eaton said the target had to change: "We have been focusing at least for the last five years on match-fixing, but we need to shift the focus on the cause, which is betting fraud and the fact is almost all betting markets are opaque, not necessarily illegal, but … not properly regulated."

"Match-fixing is a facilitating crime for sports betting, not the reverse, so the important causing crime here is betting fraud," Eaton told a conference at France's Sorbonne university, where the report was unveiled last month.


A gambling addict's tale: How a pastime became an obsession

Ah Fai was still at secondary school when he began earning HK$3,000 to HK$4,000 every month by betting on soccer.

"Studying and knowledge no longer seemed important to me as long as I knew where to place my bet. Back then I thought that's what I should do in life," said Fai, now 38, who preferred not to disclose his full name.

He was barely 17 when he became a full-time soccer gambler. He had a daily routine: Japan's J-League matches in the afternoon; England's Premier League in the evenings; Spain's La Liga after midnight; and US Major League Soccer in the morning.

He placed bets using both legal and illegal channels. Illegal bookmakers accept bigger bets and take bets on credit.

"Not long after leaving school, I already owned property and a car, and had what many would aspire to have by the time they reach 30 or 40," Fai said.

But within a few years, with two young children to care for, he found himself about HK$2 million in debt.

"I was kicked out of the flat where I had been living with my then-partner and had to stay at a hostel for the homeless," he said. "Even then, it never occurred to me that I should quit. I would spend HK$10 on bets even if I only had HK$20."

About three years ago, Fai realised he had to seek help. He attended a government-funded rehabilitation centre for gambling addicts and avoided any soccer-related information for six months.

He also renewed his faith in Christianity, which he says helped him beat his addiction.

Now working full-time, he said hoped the loved ones he betrayed would see that he was a changed person and he would get to see his children again.

As the World Cup nears, he advised gambling addicts to impose a football-information blackout as he had done, and to rethink their pastime, even if they just do it for fun.

Samuel Chan