Utahns find ways to gamble despite it being illegal in the state — but the cost is high

Published: Friday, July 5 2013 8:35 p.m. MDT

Layton authorities became aware of a cafe in their city when the parents of young man called to say their son had run up thousands of dollars on their credit card. Police took action to close the business and worked with city, county and state officials to get the fringe gambling law passed.

"They kind of came and went," Layton assistant city attorney Clint Drake said of the Internet cafes. "I think for the most part, we've done a pretty good job of enforcing the law and they've gone by the wayside."

Salt Lake City police disbanded its vice squad last year and replaced it with an Organized Crime Unit that rather than making arrests emphasizes helping people quit vices such as prostitution and gambling.

Gill said he suspects in-home gambling goes on much more than people realize, but police can't do much unless someone complains or the activity is conspicuous or it's done for commercial gain.

"If those elements are not there, the chances of finding it are really difficult," he said.

Internet gaming

The Internet, particularly, has changed the way people gamble.

"It's an evolving model," Gill said. "We need to probably think about how to address that issue in this new technological age."

Those decisions are up to policymakers. How much should be invested to enforce gambling laws? What would be the return on investment? What does the terrain look like in the constantly changing virtual world?

Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who has carried gambling-related legislation, said resources are limited and are placed where they can protect the public from criminals. Someone gambling on a smartphone is a low priority, he said.

Any chipping away at Utah's strict prohibition on gambling appears more likely to come from outside the state than inside.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised Nevada's gaming industry a federal law to legalize online poker by the end of 2012. That didn't happen. But the Nevada Democrat likely will try again this year.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said he doesn't blame Reid for standing up for the major industry in his state but "I think it's a mistake to do that to America."

"I think we ought to try to stop gambling everywhere but in those few states that really authorize it," he said.

The U.S. Department of Justice reversed its long-held opposition to many forms of Internet gambling in December 2011, opening the door for states to allow online poker and other types of online betting that don't involve sports.

The opinion came in response to requests by New York and Illinois to clarify whether the Wire Act of 1961, which prohibits wagering over telecommunications systems that cross state or national borders, prevented those states from using the Internet to sell lottery tickets to adults within their own borders.

Some states are now looking to cash in on what has become a global multibillion-dollar online gaming industry.

Overseas, online betting is generating an estimated $32 billion in annual revenue — nearly the size of the U.S. casino market. Juniper Research estimates that betting on mobile devices alone will be a $100 billion worldwide industry by 2017.

In February, Nevada legalized online poker and New Jersey and Delaware have also made some forms of online gambling legal. Bills are pending in Mississippi, Iowa, California and other states, driven by the realization that online gambling could boost tax revenue. In Iowa, online gambling proponents estimate that 150,000 residents already play poker illegally.

Nevada wants to establish itself as the gold standard in industry regulation with an eye toward partnering with states looking to enter the online gaming realm, but needing an established regulatory structure, according to the Las Vegas Sun.

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