By Patrick Begley ABCNewsAustralia
Blake Barnard had already banned himself from pubs, clubs and casinos when he lost another $300,000 on the pokies.
- In Australia, it’s against the law to provide gambling services without an Australian licence
- Many sites obtain their licences offshore, with a growing number offering crypto deposits
- The Australian Communications and Media Authority says 652 sites have been blocked for operating illegally
Through his mobile phone, he had entered the world of online casinos, which are illegal in Australia.
“I didn’t have to actually physically go anywhere,” he says.
“You can do it anytime, anywhere. On a bus, at the pub, having dinner with friends, in the bath. You can even fall asleep gambling in your bed.”
The offshore casino industry is flourishing, and increasingly accepting bets in cryptocurrency.
It was crypto that allowed Mr Barnard, 42, to keep on gambling even after his bank stopped processing deposits into his casino account.
His favoured site, Luckystar, emailed him after noticing “a few failed deposits on your end”.
“For the time being I would suggest you try using your Visa or Crypto,” a casino staff member wrote.
Mr Barnard discovered his bank still allowed him to invest in crypto, which he then immediately poured into virtual slot machines.
In total, he estimates he lost roughly $150,000 of his own money and another $150,000 that belonged to his mother, a pensioner with multiple sclerosis, through two gambling sites.
“It’s not illegal for you to gamble online. It’s just illegal for the companies overseas to offer you to gamble online,” he says.
“I’ve had some deep moments of depression and thoughts of self-harm.
“I mean, how do you reconcile with yourself, losing $300,000? It’s insane.”
‘No regulation, no law enforcement, no taxation’
It’s illegal to provide gambling services to people in Australia without an Australian licence, but scores of sites are available online.
Many of them, including Luckystar, have obtained their gambling licences from the tiny Caribbean country of Curacao, which is part of the Netherlands.
“People go to Curacao to seek licences because there is no regulation, no law enforcement and no taxation at all,” says Nardy Cramm, a journalist who runs a Curacao news site.
“You basically have carte blanche.”
Cramm, who has published investigations into the country’s online gambling industry, says it includes more than 10,000 online casinos.
She’s heard stories of financial ruin, divorce and suicide.
“I’ve seen many Australians, families breaking down already. And that’s what our casinos do … because nobody is watching.”
According to Jamie Nettleton, a gambling specialist at the law firm Addisons, a “considerable number” of Australians are using gambling websites, while entrepreneurs are also looking at cracking into the industry.
Facing a prohibition on gambling with crypto in Australia, their only option is to go abroad.
“There’s a perception from Curacao that there’s the three C’s: Curacao, casinos, cryptocurrency,” Mr Nettleton says.
“It’s far, far less time to get a licence in Curcao and essentially [fewer] costs but greater risk.”
Anonymity through crypto
Many of the sites advertise the fact they ask few questions of customers, which goes against a key tenet of anti-money laundering policy.
Luckystar does have a “know your customer” policy, and Mr Barnard was required to provide ID when signing up, but its website tells users that players depositing Bitcoin can avoid providing many of the usual sign-up details, such as their country and address, allowing them to remain “completely anonymous”.
Amanda Wood, an anti-money laundering investigator with the advisory firm Kroll Australia, says online casinos can be a target for organised criminals looking for the “weakest links” to launder funds with the lowest risk of detection.
The relative anonymity afforded by crypto poses another difficulty for authorities.
“When you’re dealing with crypto, it’s a decentralised model of finance,” Ms Wood says.
“That just makes it more challenging for law enforcement or other agencies to actually understand where the origin of the funds came from and where the funds are ultimately destined to go to.”
Mr Barnard has now engaged a lawyer in Curacao and is considering taking legal action against two online casinos, which he says failed to recognise and stop his problem gambling.
“It’s disgusting the way they operate,” he says.
“Responsible gambling is a joke, really, in the online gambling industry. It’s non-existent.”
Mr Barnard has also reported Luckystar to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which handles offshore gambling.
ACMA says its requests to internet service providers have led to blocks on 652 gambling sites.
Luckystar is among them and its licence holder has received a formal warning from ACMA for providing a prohibited gambling service to customers in Australia.
But “mirror” websites with slightly different addresses often spring up to replace those blocked.
“The ACMA is well aware of this,” Mr Nettleton says.
“But it moves so fast. And I’m aware of gaming operators who have thousands of URLs, which they can use and move their operation from one to another, to another, to another.”
In a statement, the ACMA said it was acutely aware of illegal gambling services trying to avoid blocks with mirror websites.
“We take a proactive approach including monitoring and swiftly taking action against services that attempt to circumvent blocking,” a spokesperson said.
“Many of the illegal services we investigate are based overseas which can present enforcement challenges, particularly where the entities or individuals running these services cannot be or have not yet been identified.
“That said, the ACMA regularly issues formal warnings to offshore providers.”
Luckystar, whose operator has changed since Mr Barnard lost his money, did not respond to questions.
If Mr Barnard recovers any money from the online casino, he intends to use the compensation to pay back his mother – and clear his conscience.
“I’ve just been running and hiding from what I’ve done just from the shame of it all,” he says.
“And now I’ve got to the point where I’m taking ownership of it. Running away is not the solution.”