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Place your bets, please - and no one need know

PERSONAL FINANCE: Stephen Pritchard explores the growing world of on-line gambling
BETTING on the internet is ideal for anyone who feels daunted by a trip to the bookies. Football, and the World Cup in particular, has widened the appeal of sports betting.

BETonline claims to be the UK's first, fully-legal net betting service. Unsurprisingly it launched for the World Cup but now covers cricket, rugby, golf, Formula One, American football and soccer.

BETonline works rather like an on-line bank account. Punters connect to the site and open an account with a debit card. They can use the money to place stakes on any number of bets. Alternatively, customers can place individual stakes on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Winnings can be left in the BETonline account, or withdrawn. In the latter case, BETonline credits the money to the card account the customer used for the original stake.

According to Martin Belsham, managing director for the service, BETonline is a mass-market service rather than for high-rolling gamblers. Some users have placed bids worth thousands of pounds, but the minimum is just a pound.

Betting shops have television screens showing sporting events and Teletext. BETonline has far more detailed information through its links to the PA Sporting Life site. The Sporting Life news and archives are just a few mouse clicks away for statistics on past form.

PA Sporting Life is one of the partners behind BETonline. The others are the Press Association itself, which provides sports news, and City Index.

City Index , which acts as the bookmakers and runs the site, is best-known for its spread of betting operations, both for sport and for financial markets. BETonline is something of a departure for the company, because it offers only fixed-odds bets.

With spread betting, liabilities are open-ended, and it is possible to lose more than your stake. Spread betting is highly geared; the compensation for the higher risk is that winners receive handsome payouts.

City Index has a large spread betting operation covering sport, taking bets on unusual odds such as the time of a first goal, the number of runs in a cricket match, or the number of red cards in soccer.

Spread betting continues even after the start of a game, so logistically, Mr Belsham says, it would be hard to administer over the net. For now, spread betting is a telephone service.

Spread betting aficionados can use City Index's own web site to check the status of their accounts, and monitor their markets.

Spread betting, for example on the futures and options market, has some advantages over the real thing; the minimum stakes are lower than for options contracts, and winnings, unlike capital gains from the markets, are tax-free.

BETonline: www.betonline.co.uk; PA Sporting Life: www.sporting-life.com; City Index: www.cityindex.co.uk

Readers can email details of financial Internet sites, good or bad, to the author at hi-tech-investor@dial.pipex.com