Suckers pour cash into casino ripoffs online

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The Independent Online
Wrong numbers in the Lottery again? Never mind - if you are on the Internet, and have an optimistic outlook, you could just log on and start playing the online casinos now proliferating on the World Wide Web.

You might think an optimistic outlook is essential for any gambler. But on the Internet it's vital. One online gambler recently described his experience: "I bought in for $100, and was winning for a while on blackjack. Then the dealer won the next 15 hands in a row! Most of them were totals of 21. I'm not saying that's not possible, just unlikely."

See how the optimistic outlook helps? You have to believe that the organisations running them are bona fide, and they aren't going to take your credit card number and use it to buy Paraguay; and also that if you win, you will be paid.

Jeffrey Pealer suffered this last problem. In February he bet on a basketball game between the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri. He picked the right result, and should have won $1,800. But, as the Houston Sun-Sentinel newspaper said, he bet in the wrong place - an Antigua-based Internet gambling setup called GlobalSports-Net. They said his cheque was in the mail. It wasn't, and pretty soon they weren't on the phone.

The Sun-Sentinel also spoke to Joseph H Roosth, who had a blunt opinion after losing $140 in online bets. "As near as I can tell, they are all rip-offs," he said.

He might be right. The problem is, it's impossible to tell. The common saying is that "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog". Which means you can have the most mind-blowing web site, with the fanciest graphics, but absolutely no head office. A number of the web sites the Independent on Sunday investigated turned out to have registration addresses no more descriptive than post-office boxes in places as far-flung as downtown Las Vegas and villages in Antigua. Apart from anything else, it makes it harder to turn up and bang your fist on the counter when you think you've been wronged. Caveat aleator (let the dice-thrower beware), perhaps.

But some people reckon that Internet gambling is a wave of the future - and they aren't sure they like the look of it. In September John Keitt, a top American racing lawyer who represents the US Jockey Club, told a worldwide conference on racetrack gambling that in three years' time Internet- based gambling in America could generate $10bn a year on top of the $482bn already wagered on legal gambling.

The worry, though, is that the racetracks wouldn't see any of it: it would just go into bank accounts in Las Vegas or Antigua.

Partly in reaction to this fear, in April a bill to ban all forms of gambling via the Internet was introduced in the US Senate by Jon Kyl, a Republican from Arizona. It is working its way through the legislative process, but nobody is quite sure how you legislate against people playing games on their computers connected to other sites - for example, in Antigua. Like the booze ships of American Prohibition, they would be out of reach of the police, yet nicely within reach of the eager public.

The US tends to be the forcing ground for the global network: what becomes habit there tends to spread over here. However, access to gambling in the UK by other means, such as betting shops, could mean that we are less keen on online stakes.

Another encouraging fact is that the growing use of computers, and familiarity with the Internet, will actually make people more sensible. As Harvey Laser, a real-life gambler (when he gets to Las Vegas) commented in a gambling discussion group: "I use computers to make my living. I don't think either I nor the technology is ready yet to drive me to use my computers to give my living away."