HONG KONG, July 18, 2010 (AFP) - Illegal betting on World Cup matches surged across Asia during the month-long tournament even as punters risked arrest, or faced worse at the hands of bookmakers frequently linked to crime syndicates.
Police in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and China -- including Hong Kong and the glitzy gambling hub Macau -- arrested more than 5,000 people during the global tournament which wrapped up earlier this month, according to Interpol.
The raids, which Interpol helped coordinate, saw local police swoop on more than 800 illegal gambling dens which handled more than 155 million US dollars in bets, the international policing agency said Friday.
The operation ran between June 11 and July 11, during a time when hundreds of millions of fans around the globe were glued to their television screens, following the action from the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
"The results we have seen are impressive," Jean-Michel Louboutin, Interpol's executive director for police services, said in a statement.
"As well as having clear connections to organised crime gangs, illegal soccer gambling is also linked with corruption, money laundering and prostitution."
In Malaysia, illegal sports betting was prevalent partly due to easy access to bookies while some syndicates double as loan sharks in providing quick cash, but impose high compounding interest rates, to gamblers.
"There are a lot of bookies around, and some are getting as high as 40 percent commission from the bet they collected -- for every 10 dollars bet they collected, they get four dollars in return immediately," Philip Goh, treasurer of the Gamblers Rehab Centre (GRC), told AFP.
"The easy access to illegal bookies are making it convenient for people to participate in this illegal activity."
Betting of all kinds is hugely popular across Asia with casino revenues in the former Portuguese colony of Macau now having overtaken Las Vegas and industry experts predicting the region will soon eclipse the US gaming market.
Illicit gambling remains a problem even in Hong Kong and Singapore where punters can bet legally on football through state-sanctioned operators.
Part of the allure for punters may be easier credit terms and better odds, a "hassle-free" scenario where punters are not required to pay the money outright when placing a wager.
They pay only when they lose.
But failure to cough up money owed to gambling syndicates can bring horrific punishment with police warning that some of Hong Kong's illegal bookies have connections to the city's notorious triads.
Punters in the football and horse racing-mad former British colony, which was returned to China in 1997, can bet legally on a variety of sports events including the World Cup through the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
The Club handled about 35 billion Hong Kong dollars in legal football bets last year.
But police in the southern Chinese territory still arrested hundreds of people and seized betting slips worth about 361 million Hong Kong dollars (46 million US dollars) during the World Cup.
That was an almost five-fold increase from the 2006 World Cup when police seized gambling slips worth 74 million Hong Kong dollars.
The region-wide raids also netted cars, bank cards, computers and mobile phones.
In Malaysia, Mohammad Bakri Zinin, chief of the Criminal Investigation Department said arrest records were being broken.
"The number of arrests that we made in this World Cup is a record and it represents a 300 percent increase compared to the number of arrests we made during the European Championships two years ago," he said.
In Thailand, the job of catching illegal bookies has become tougher as punters flock to online gambling, said Major General Boonsong Panichattra, who spearheaded Bangkok's crackdown on football betting.
In the Thai capital alone, almost 1,800 people were arrested during the tournament, compared to 700 four years ago. But fewer bookies have been arrested because punters preferred to gamble online.
Police in India were also struggling to eradicate illegal football betting.
"It is not easy to get rid of the menace," said Rajan Bhagat, from the Delhi police.