What a surprise - online casinos hand out free dollars!

Online gambling observers were surprised this week to note that Australian anti-online gambling activists have apparently just realised that online casinos and poker rooms offer free dollars in the form of incentive signup bonuses.

Reports carried widely in the Australian mainstream media carried negative comments on the practice by known opponents of online gambling like Tim Costello and anti-gambling politician and Senator Nick Xenophon.

Publications reported that bonus incentives range from A$10 to over A$1 000....and quoted opponents of the pastime as saying that this was unethical and an attempt to suck in novine gamblers....and could contribute to problem gambling.

"It's like saying to an alcoholic, here's a free drink," Tim Costello tlold one publication. "There is no question it is dangerous. I think it's wrong."

Online betting companies confirmed that offers of free bets were a widespread industry practice. In a recent mail-out to about 13 000 long-standing clients, Centrebet offered a A$10 "free bet" with the re-issue of membership cards, reporters disclosed.

Sportingbet Australia said it offered free bets up to the value of A$200 - depending on the amount a customer deposited in their betting account - while Betfair is reported to have offered free A$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 A$50 in bets to existing customers who referred a friend, and claimed that some industry firms now offered as much as A$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 percent of your opening deposit. It's sort of like a semi rewards system."

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."

Australian politician Nick Xenophon - long an opponent of online gambling - was highly critical of 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," the always outspoken Senator declared. "What they are doing is they are playing on people's vulnerabilities. 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."

Predictably, both Senator Xenophon and Costello want the Australian federal government to ban online offers of free bets, with Xenophon revealing that he intends to introduce a private members bill soon to halt the practice, and perhaps initiate a wider inquiry into online gambling.

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

"Online betting is potentially much worse, because you can lose your house without leaving it," Costello said in his own Aussie version of the cliche much used by American politicians and opponents of Internet gambling: "Click your mouse and lose your house."

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