Online gambling is feeding addictions

COULD you spot a man with a €10 million gambling habit?

Would he have an air of prosperity about him? Or would his eyes harbour that look known best to the desperate and the deranged?

The outcome of the trial of Tony O’Reilly was largely lost to festive cheer over the last few weeks, but it raises some fundamental issues about a great hidden in Irish society.

O’Reilly, from Carlow, was sentenced to four years in prison on Dec 19 for fraud to the value of €1.7m. He had been the manager of Gorey post office where, over a period of a year, he stole the money to feed a gambling addiction.

The figures are staggering, and provide testimony to both the expert connivance of an addict in feeding an addiction, and the new madness that has opened up through online gambling. Apart from that, there is also an issue around how O’Reilly’s descent went unchecked by the gambling operators.

O’Reilly is a 37-year-old father of one. He first dipped his fingers into post office funds sometime after May 2010 when his gambling began to get out of control. At the outset he took the money in the form of coins, covering his tracks by inflating the figures for coins in the office safe. Initially, he took €8,000. By September, when he went on parental leave, the figure had increased to €60,000, and by them he was forging figures on receipt dockets. By December, his problem had spiralled out of control to the point where he had taken €290,000.

He had by then graduated from coins to taking €2,000 in €50 notes from bundles of €50,000. He explained to the gardaí that taking that amount would ensure that the bundle was still wrapped “fairly tight” and it wouldn’t be obvious for some time that anything was missing.

Obviously, in the warped thinking of the addict, he must have told himself at the time that he would replace the money when his ship came in, believing that the ship loitering on the horizon was revving up to come sailing towards him.

Over the following four months another €751,000 went missing. And then, in a single month between April and May 2011, he took €319,000. After that, the amounts dropped but by Jun 15 he’d done for another €290,000.

The fraud was only discovered when an audit was carried out. On the morning that he was about to be rumbled, O’Reilly did a runner, showing up some weeks later in Belfast. He co-operated fully with the gardaí thereafter.

His sentencing hearing at Wexford Circuit Court heard that O’Reilly was regarded as a valued customer by Paddy Power, the bookmaker with which he conducted most of his online gambling.

His account was under the name ‘Tony Ten’ and had a turnover of €10m. O’Reilly was wont to lodging cash in Paddy Power shops into his online account. It’s unclear as to how many shops he utilised for this strategy, but unless he had a whole network of shops that he visited, the sums must have been huge for each lodgement. Apparently, this didn’t set any alarm bells ringing.

The bookmaker was in personal contact with O’Reilly, whom it considered a valued customer. He was brought on all expenses trips to Punchestown and the Aviva stadium.

At the sentencing hearing, O’Reilly’s barrister put it to a detective that the defendant lived in a modest house, which should have set alarm bells ringing at Paddy Powers, considering the huge turnover in his account. How could a man who lived in a modest home, with no apparent access to huge sums, be betting like an oil-soaked sheikh with time on his hands?

No alarm bells sounded in Paddy Power. O’Reilly kept gambling his way into the heart of a nightmare, for himself, his wife, his two-year-old child, their futures, his life. Everybody has personal responsibility for their actions, but it is widely accepted in society that those who are addicted to mood-altering substances or gambling are in need of help to at least grasp what they are about.

Until quite recently, O’Reilly’s addiction would have been unlikely to have descended to the levels that it did. Gambling in shops is a somewhat public affair, and it involves the physical handing over of cash, presence in the shops to view live events, and, usually, access to the event which is the subject of the gamble.

Online does away with all that. The bet is the click of a mouse away. Sports all over the world can be accessed online, and bets placed without even getting out of bed. O’Reilly bet on the Norwegian ladies soccer team, and American football and all sorts of sports he undoubtedly knew nothing about. The wonderful world of the web facilitates this level of madness at the touch of a keyboard.

For the casual gambler, it’s a convenience. For the addict, it equips the downward spiral with a high performance accelerator gear.

The rock bottom at which an addict is faced with reality is thus a lot lower than it would have been in the old days. Reality can be kept at bay much longer when the addict can convince himself that none of this is real, because it’s online, a world away, not unlike some video game.

The bookies maintain that this brave and dangerous new world has prompted them to put in place various alert systems to spot the addict. Paddy Power has been a runaway corporate success in recent years, largely due to its adaption to the web. It claims that its checks are of a high standard, beyond the industry norms.

Yet no bells sounded for Tony O’Reilly. Nobody wondered about where Tony Ten, this guy from rural Carlow, was getting the bobs. Nobody spotted that he was the manager of a post office, and not a millionaire farmer, or net whizz kid, or a hedge fund manager relocated from Wall Street. Nobody seems to have asked too many inconvenient questions.

Governments around the world are attempting to catch up with the untamed world of online gambling. New legislation is due to be introduced by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter here in the coming months. It will contain rules for operators to ensure they promote socially responsible gambling, and beef up warning systems. So far, health professional who deal with gambling addicts, are highly sceptical about the provisions that operators are making. It remains to be seen whether these warning systems will be greatly improved to ensure that those with a problem are not facilitated.

Meanwhile, O’Reilly has begun his sentence. Judge Pauline Codd pointed out that O’Reilly had suffered much, but the severity of the crime meant that a custodial sentence was necessary. She suspended one year of the four-year prison term.

In the brave new world of online gambling, this kind of case is likely to recur with greater frequency. When the lucky chance is just a click away, the real world can be shut out for long enough for a problem to descend to new levels of madness.

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