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Online gambling ups odds of a problem in workplace

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The increasing sophistication of Internet gambling has created additional challenges for employers, experts on employee assistance programs say.

Thousands of online gambling sites offer highly popular poker games, roulette, pachinko, baccarat and other gambling in addition to a great deal of sports betting. Cyber gamblers in the office can bet on real events or on fantasy sports, where they assemble a fantasy team from players in the real world and compete based on players' statistics.

Isabelle Duguay, coordinator of problem gambling at Bensinger, Dupont & Associates, a Chicago EAP provider, said the Internet creates more gambling problems than any bricks-and-mortar casino.

On the Internet, "the play tends to be faster and a player can be in several different games at once," she said. Playing games on several windows simultaneously, "you don't realize how much you are losing until it is too late."

A 2002 study by the Gambling Treatment Research Center in Storrs, Conn., found that 75% of those who gamble online have a gambling problem, compared with about 5% of the overall gambling population.

"It is so easy to gamble online," Ms. Duguay added. "You just go over and click on your mouse."

The Washington-based National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling reports that a new casino opening 10 to 50 miles away doubles problem gambling rates in a specific area, but Internet gambling provides "the ultimate proximity," a computer that is a few feet away.

A U.S. law passed last October is cracking down on gambling sites, which have fled to foreign bases such as Anguilla and Costa Rica, but Ms. Duguay reports that Internet gambling continues to be popular among young people, who dominate even the bingo sites.

But how much does Internet gambling harm the employer? The longstanding risks for employees gambling away from work still apply: poor attendance, substance abuse and embezzlement to cover losses, said Judy Whitcomb, director of account services at ComPsych Corp., a Chicago-based EAP. And when gambling is brought to a computer in the office, she adds, it impinges on work time.

For example, a 2004 report by the Chicago-based outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas calculated that employers lose more than $1 billion in productivity during March Madness, the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Ruhal Dooley, human resources knowledge administrator at the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va., says employers should be mindful of state laws on gambling, especially if they are in the public sector, but the risk is relatively minor. Gambling on the Internet is illegal in eight states—Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin—but there are no reported prosecutions against gamblers, much less their employers for allegedly facilitating gambling through use of their equipment.

Instead, law enforcement has pursued site operators. The sites are in a period of retrenchment following passage of the federal legislation that goes into effect in July and prohibits prohibits online gambling operators from accepting funds from players.

Reacting to the law, sites such as Gibraltar-based PartyGaming P.L.C. and London-based Sportingbet P.L.C. say they would suspend operations for U.S. customers, while others, like Antigua-based Bodog.com Entertainment Group, have suspended U.S. advertising. And executives of London-based Neteller U.K. Ltd., which processed U.S. players' payments to most of the foreign sites, have been charged under an older federal law with "conspiring to transfer funds with the intent to promote illegal gambling" by the U.S. Justice Department.

While employers are concerned about Internet pornography and threatening e-mails at work, many see gambling as harmless or even a way to foster camaraderie, Mr. Dooley said.

Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Online Addiction in Bradford, Pa., said obsession with other forms of Internet use is often perceived to be more of a problem, with some polls showing problems related to online shopping and accessing pornography online as a more of a concern than gambling.

In addition to eating up work time, heavy Internet use can tie up a company's bandwidth and risk importing spyware and viruses. Ms. Young recommends buying software that can block access to certain sites or monitor Internet and e-mail use.

EAPs often offer problem gamblers counseling over the phone and referrals to therapists.

Ms. Duguay and Ms. Whitcomb say employers can reduce the incidence of online gambling by creating a policy on gambling and following up with training to help management and workers recognize the warning signs, such as mood swings, asking to borrow money and requesting pay advances (see box, page 20).

"It helps to have employees sign policies and procedures, so that they know what is appropriate and what is not," Ms. Whitcomb said.