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Online betting agencies lure gamblers with free bets
By Melanie Christiansen - Courier Mail (QLD Metropolitan, 1 February 2009)

ONLINE betting agencies are giving away millions of dollars worth of "free" bets to open an online account to entice Queenslanders to gamble. The offers range from $10 to $1000 credited directly into their accounts - in a move condemned by critics as "unethical" and an attempt to "suck in" problem gamblers.

"It's like saying to an alcoholic, here's a free drink," said social justice campaigner the Rev Tim Costello. "There is no question it is dangerous. I think it's wrong."

While most states ban poker machine venues from offering financial inducements to lure players, online betting companies yesterday confirmed offers of free bets were a widespread industry practice.

In a recent mail-out to about 13,000 long-standing clients, Centrebet offered a $10 "free bet" with the re-issue of membership cards. "Log in now and you'll find a $10 free bet token in your account," the letter to one Queensland customer said.

Sportingbet Australia said it also offered free bets up to the value of $200 - depending on the amount a customer deposited in their betting account - while Betfair caused an outcry at the Australian Open last week by offering free $50 bets to tennis fans willing to sign up for an account.

Sports bookmaker Gerard Daffy - with the ACT-based online betting company Sports Acumen - said his agency offered $50 in bets to existing customers who referred a friend.

But he said some industry players now offered as much as $1000 in free bets to new account holders, while "selected" well-established clients had long been allowed to bet on credit.

"Free bets are all relative to an opening deposit," he said. "It could be like 25 per cent of your opening deposit. It's sort of like a semi rewards system."

Along with Centrebet and Sportingbet, Mr Daffy dismissed suggestions the free bet offers would fuel problem gambling, describing them as no different to the incentives offered by other businesses.

"Everywhere you go there are bonuses on offer," he said.

"The petrol station will give you 5c off if you spend $10."

But anti-gambling Senator Nick Xenophon blasted the practice, saying online betting agencies would not be giving away millions of dollars in so-called "free" bets without the promise of a much bigger return.

"I would call them parasites, because what they are doing is they are playing on people's vulnerabilities," he said.

"There's no such thing as a free bet. They know people will get sucked in and hooked and they'll make back their money many times."

Senator Xenophon and Mr Costello both want the Federal Government to ban online offers of free bets.

Senator Xenophon said he would introduce a private members bill in the next few months to stop the practice, with the aim of triggering a wider inquiry into online gambling. He said online gambling would produce Australia's "next wave" of problem gamblers.

Mr Costello also called for new research into the extent of online punting, warning it could be even more significant than gambling on the pokies, which saw Queenslanders lose $1.83 billion last year - or more than $5 million a day.

"Online betting is potentially much worse, because you can lose your house without leaving it," Mr Costello said.

Online betting agencies have been allowed to advertise their free-bet offers in Victoria and NSW since those states dropped a long-standing ban on such ads. But Australia's racing ministers have since agreed to develop a national standard for bookmaker advertising. | End

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