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msnbc.com

As Internet gambling rapidly moves toward the mainstream, the social costs that opponents have long predicted as a result of what they consider a frighteningly efficient form of betting are becoming more visible.

Kevin O'Neill, deputy director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, estimates that about 2 percent of the phone calls to the organization’s help line - and a much higher percentage of e-mail — are from problem gamblers who do their betting online. Problem gambling is estimated to afflict between 3 and 5 percent of the population.

“Ninety or 95 percent of the people who bet online, bet alone,” said Kevin O’Neill, deputy director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey. “Now that’s pretty scary.”

O’Neill said those who develop online gambling problems tend to be younger than the typical caller to the council’s help line and have run up less debt than is normal for those who do their betting in brick-and-mortar establishments, where the red-ink average runs about $40,000. But the Internet gamblers also tend to reach desperation faster, usually in less than two years, he says.

John Baptiste, a 39-year-old union electrician from San Jose, Calif., saw the dark side of easily available gambling first hand, when his wife committed suicide after losing more than $30,000 in a year of online gambling.

“I figure if it’s not available readily to someone who’s got a problem gambling, ... they’re going to fight the temptation, they’re not going to drive to Tahoe or fly to Las Vegas,” he said. “But with Internet gambling, it’s right there anytime you want, 24 hours a day.”

In addition to the possibility of losing too much, Internet bettors face potential problems playing online even if they win.

James Lutz of Whippany, N.J., won a $50,000 jackpot playing a game called Super 6 at an online casino in July 1999. But when he attempted to collect his winnings, the site operators first told him technical problems were preventing them from crediting his account, then said they were investigating whether hackers had gotten into the system and rigged the payout.

Nearly two years later, Lutz is in court trying to collect the money, with the outlook uncertain at best.

“It’s been a nightmare,” he said. “I feel confident at this point that pursuing it is the right thing to do if for no other reason … than maybe it will get someone’s attention, maybe ... articles will be written, regulations will be considered and other people will be spared from this grief.”

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