Hong Kong's huge illegal sports betting market generated HK$500 billion in turnover last year, while over the same period punters in the city lost HK$12 billion in illicit bets, Jockey Club experts have revealed.
The numbers emerged from a forensic study of sports betting patterns since the Jockey Club introduced soccer betting in 2003. And the HK$500 billion is almost four times what the club's horse racing and soccer betting operations turned over last year.
The figures, revealed days before the start of the World Cup finals in Brazil - which will likely deliver illegal bookmakers a multibillion-dollar boost - have prompted calls for a complete rethink of Hong Kong's strategy to combat black-market betting.
Jockey Club director of trading Patrick Jay said the problem was now too big for law enforcement to tackle alone and required a coordinated government and societal response.
"It's time for people to stop thinking that illegal sports betting is not a blood crime," he said. "The links to organised crime are real and HK$12 billion is equivalent to 60 per cent of the Hong Kong government's Community Care Fund.
"That is 17,000 public housing units, 300 elderly care homes or 100 secondary schools,"
The task facing police was presented in stark terms last week as they announced a World Cup crackdown on illegal betting. They revealed the value of soccer betting receipts seized in recent years peaked in 2010, the last World Cup year, when HK$386 million was confiscated.
"The police do the best they can but what does HK$386 million represent when we are looking at a turnover of HK$500 billion? It's a very small drop in a very, very big ocean," said Jay.
"The Jockey Club offers 800 horse races and 10,000 soccer matches a season with limited betting options. Our margins are smaller and there is the tax take.
"Illegal bookmakers offer hundreds of thousands of horse races from around the world, tens of thousands of soccer matches and many other sports. Plus they offer an array of different types of bets - and they offer credit. It's a no-brainer for the customer."
Martin Purbrick, the club's director of security, said the illegal betting market had grown significantly over the past decade, made easier with the increased use of mobile communications.
"Illegal betting revenue is huge income for criminal groups and continues to grow, funding other criminal activities that are often part of sophisticated criminal enterprises," said Purbrick.
"We need a strategy that includes the media to highlight the criminal problem, banks to prevent payments to and from illegal betting operators, police to prioritise cross-border efforts against operators and a legal betting product range to compete with illegal bookmakers."