Hong Kong’s prisoners wagering their lungs on World Cup


hong-kong-prison-betting-world-cupHong Kong’s prisons are once again a hive of cigarette-fueled gambling activity as the hours count down to the start of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

As police forces across the Asia-Pacific region brace for this month’s expected onslaught of illegal football wagering, Hong Kong authorities are once again reminding the world that where there’s a will, there’s a way (to wager).

On Monday, Hong Kong’s Correctional Services Department announced that its officers had conducted over 3,000 prison searches in the first five months of 2018 that uncovered 45 inmates running some form of illegal gambling operation despite their limited freedom.

The guards reported that the total sum being wagered via these illegal means was over HK$1.3m (US$166k), with most of these wagers using cigarettes as currency. For the record, while the number of would-be bookies nabbed was roughly the same as in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup, the total handle was HKD300k higher this time around. (Clearly, Hong Kong is imprisoning a higher class of criminal these days.)

The behind-bars-bookies who were unlucky enough to get caught can face a range of extra punishments, from solitary confinement to the loss of book-lending privileges. Sadly, the screws are also clamping down on inmates’ capacity to brew alcohol from fermenting fruit, so these bookies can’t even drown their sorrows over their lost income.

Hong Kong’s non-incarcerated population is expected to place over HK$30b ($3.82b) in illegal wagers on this year’s World Cup, at least, according to the easily-agitated monopolists at the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC). Illegal bookies are expected to claim roughly HK$750m of this wagering bounty as their profit, again, according to the HKJC.

The HKJC routinely gets its knickers in a twist over having to compete with its illegal rivals, and the HK$30b figure is the same as the company breathlessly reported in 2014. Seems odd that the figure wouldn’t go up, although we can’t rule out the suspicion that the HKJC simply forgot to check the date on the 2014 report and assumed it was current since the message never changes.

During the 2014 World Cup, Hong Kong police arrested 176 individuals, seized HK$13m in cash and betting records totaling HK$750m. For this year’s version of its ‘Crowbreak’ anti-betting campaign, the South China Morning Post reported that Hong Kong police will be focusing their anti-betting efforts on the digital realm.

Organized Crime and Triad Bureau senior inspector Raymond Chau Man-hin said that police face an uphill climb in an era when paper betting slips have given way to WeChat and WhatsApp messages and apps that self-destruct messages after a period of time. Chau said the new technology required more police man-hours due to the need to sift through reams of digital data, much of it encrypted.

Chau added a fresh wrinkle to this year’s ‘punters beware’ notice, claiming that credit bettors who can’t make good on their losing wagers run the risk of having to give criminal syndicates their banking info. Chau claimed that these crime groups then use the accounts to funnel the proceeds of their illegal activities. Still, with that much money in the accounts, the banks are likely to waive that month’s service charges, so you know, win-win.