Web searches and traffic to illegal online casinos surged during the depth of Australia’s COVID-19 lockdown, despite the government regulator’s “whack-a-mole” attempt to block unlicensed offshore gambling websites.
Exclusive online traffic data provided by analytics firm SEMrush shows the number of web searches within Australia for “online pokies” jumped from 12,100 in February to 40,500 in April, as the pandemic forced pubs, clubs and legal casinos to close their doors.
Traffic from Australia to one of the most popular and widely promoted online casinos, JokaRoom, almost doubled from 606,407 visits in February to 1.2 million visits in April, SEMrush’s data shows.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority has ordered internet service providers to block 52 illegal online casino websites since it gained the power to do so in November, and warned that the websites frequently defraud users while offering few if any harm minimisation measures.
An ACMA spokesman said the regulator was aware illegal sites were still targeting Australians and that it would continue to block sites while running a public education campaign warning users of the risk they’ll never get back the money they deposit.
Industry statistics showed that the amount Australians gambled on offshore sites had been falling before COVID-19, the spokesman said.
The federal government estimated last year that Australians lost up to $400 million annually on illegal gambling sites, depriving states of around $100 million in tax revenue had that money been lost with legal on-shore operators. Australians lost $25 billion gambling in 2018 with just over half of that on poker machines.
Alex Russell, a gambling researcher at Central Queensland University, said he had expected a spike in online gambling as poker machine venues shut, with online casino games more attractive than sports betting or lotteries to gamblers who were used to high-speed slot games.
“Gambling is an addiction… so having that taken away from you overnight is a big deal, so they’re going to look for something else,” he said.
Dr Russell said the more reputable casino websites appeared to be playing by the rules and blocking Australians, which left the “dodgy ones” who were “really quite happy to disappear and take your money“.
Monash University gambling and public health expert Charles Livingstone said trying to shut down illegal gaming websites was like playing “whack-a-mole” as new websites sprang up whenever one was blocked.
Professor Livingstone also expected increased spending on online gambling during the COVID-19 lockdown, but said his own yet-to-be published research did not suggest that illegal casino sites were a major driver of that.
Research by the Australian Institute of Criminology shows that the total number of people gambling online declined in March and April this year, but those who were gambling spent more.
The survey of 1000 people found 33 per cent said they had gambled more online in April compared to the start of the year. One in five said they were playing online casino games, card games and pokies more often in April than at the start of the year.
Business reporter at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.