Placing bets online easy and seductive

Gambling: Are some Internet sites luring college students to wager their way into disastrous debt? You bet.

September 22, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Andy Lissak was reading his college newspaper at West Virginia University when he saw it: an ad for uofsports.com, an Internet gambling service promising "$$$$$s" and vowing "the fastest payout on the Web."

He logged on. He clicked. He won. He lost. He got hooked. Soon, he was placing online sports bets up to three times a day, slowly losing more and more money. By last spring, his grades had plummeted, his girlfriend had dumped him and he owed $7,000 on his credit cards.

Lissak is one of scores of college students who might never have wagered were it not for online sports betting sites, whose ease and anonymity make them the perfect gambling hideaway on the nation's campuses.

The siren call of quick cash and the ease of point-and-click technology provide a gambling culture that many believe is thriving just below the radar of college administrators -- upstaging the random campus bookie whose shady connections and illegal deal-making often scared off the average college kid.

"Internet gambling is as dangerous as alcohol on campuses," said Lissak, a 20-year-old sports management major who quit gambling this year and hopes that his story of hitting financial and emotional rock bottom at age 19 will stop other students from making the same mistakes.

"A lot of my friends are failing out of school because of it, because it's all you think about.Colleges just don't realize how bad it is."

The sites are so common and the Web site appeals to students so brazen that players might not even recognize that sports betting is illegal in almost every state. But then, there are no states on the Internet, a fact that has frustrated the policing of these sites and raised messy legal questions.

Gambling addiction experts call cyber-wagering a stealth addiction on campuses, occurring behind dorm room doors and in unmonitored computer rooms with no one the wiser.

Lissak, now a junior, started betting online last year to pay off student loans. But the diversion quickly grew into an obsession that, he said, "controlled my life."

Even after a friend dropped out of Virginia Tech to pay off $5,000 lost in a single online Super Bowl bet, Lissak was logging on to place more wagers, spending hours scrambling to make up for the previous day's losses.

Isolation adds to danger

No one -- not his girlfriend of two years, not his parents at home in upper-middle-class Fairfax, Va. -- suspected that he was hooked on sports betting. Not even as Lissak slowly disengaged from college life.

"I had a computer class, and I'd just go on the Internet and look at what to bet on, but nobody could tell what I was doing," Lissak said. The problem worsened, fueled by the isolation of the Internet, where wagers quickly spun out of control.

"When you're on the Internet," he said, "it was never like there was someone you're talking to, someone saying, `Are you sure you want to do this?' "

And students rarely speak up when the gambling goes awry.

Matt Wiegman, a senior at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., said he has spent $10,000 on the sites over the past four years and is loath to stop. "I'm winning right now," he reasoned.

Administrators alarmed

More public signs of campus cyber-gambling -- particularly sports betting, the most popular kind of student wager -- began appearing regularly at the start of this school year.

Just after classes began at Penn State University, a half-page ad in the Collegian, the campus newspaper, directed students to a sports betting and Las Vegas-style casino Web site -- prompting college administrators to wonder whether they should ban all cyber-casino advertising on campus.

At the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, another site put its address on campus bulletin boards with the tease, "Are you fed up with your bookie playing the spread? Then come to the best sports book on the net."

On a single day last week, Casino Jazz, one of more than 300 Internet gambling sites, received 50 calls to its Costa Rican headquarters after it sent a mass mailing to the nation's fraternity houses. The students called toll-free.

Even without the involvement of young people, the cyber-gambling phenomenon is rife with legal questions and arrests. The Justice Department says online gambling is illegal because it occurs in states where wagering is outlawed and violates the federal Wire Communications Act, which makes a phone call to a bookie a crime.

Criminal charges

Armed with that act, the federal government charged 14 owners and managers of six offshore companies in March 1998 with unlawfully accepting wagers from Americans. The first trial is set to begin soon in New York.

For their part, Internet gambling operators argue that their Web sites break no U.S. laws because they are run entirely in places, such as the Caribbean and Central America, where gambling is legal. What's more, many say they voluntarily enforce a code of conduct that promotes responsible gambling.

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