Many OPAP agencies are in on illicit deals, even helping with Internet forms

In most European Union member states, private betting is clearly prohibited, as, according to community law, reasons of public interest dictate that these games cannot be unregulated. In Greece, Law 2433/96 and Presidential Decree 250/97 state that «anyone who organizes betting among the public or within a broad section of the population risks prison sentences of six months and fines of 1 to 20 million drachmas.» Anyone undermining OPAP’s monopoly by means of advertising faces penalties. So OPAP has already sent summonses to 15 newspapers that run advertisements for private betting agencies. According to the director of OPAP’s legal department, Nikos Tomaras, another 25 were in the offing. The ads are for Internet services that operate according to the law in the host country but are illegal according to Greek law. Such agencies are easy to find by using the keyword «bet» on one of the search engines or in one of the many advertisements in betting magazines. They appear to all intents and purposes to be legal and are «monitored» in their host countries. According to an employee of the fourth-largest betting agency in the world, these firms have a valid operating license and legal status in countries such as Malta, Gibraltar, Austria or Cyprus. He said Greeks bet over 2 million euros a month with his agency alone, on all sports. During the Euro 2004 soccer championship, the firm had a turnover of 15 million euros. On a weekly basis, up to 100,000 euros are gambled on Greek soccer championship games. As with the Internet, access is either through a bank account or by credit card, so there are also cases of credit card theft, although the sites where the biggest winnings are to be gained are careful not to ruin their reputations. Despite reports to the contrary, gambling crime syndicates are still rife. They consist of organized groups of people operating outside the law and trying to launder money from crime. Their activities presuppose the help of corrupt OPAP staff, middlemen and secret rules that no one can violate. According to Greek police officials, some of these groups are controlled by common criminals who have become very wealthy thanks to illegal activities such as drug dealing. «For someone to enter the group, he has to pay large sums in order to gain the trust of those in charge. Access is through OPAP agencies, cafes or through acquaintances,» they said. Middlemen play a major role – these are people above suspicion who undertake to gather the bets from gamblers. They are paid a percentage of up to 10 percent. They are usually based in their regular workplace, in a cafe, or even out of their car. On occasion, OPAP agents have been found to be involved, something that both the police and Tomaras confirmed. An example was the case of Alexandros Angelopoulos, who laundered money from the cocaine trade by buying winning tickets from OPAP agents. There have also been cases where OPAP agency owners have issued Internet betting forms to facilitate gamblers unfamiliar with the Internet. «Unfortunately in recent years, permits have sometimes been issued to the wrong people and we are now doing what we can to control the situation,» said Tomaras. Often it is the very same legal framework that gives OPAP exclusive rights that is the problem in trying to restrict the activities of illegal groups. This is because anyone making allegations against these groups risks being imprisoned himself (for participating in illegal gambling). Usually it is the law of silence and the fear of recrimination that prevail. «We enter apartments and find evidence that does not stand up in court because in order to convict someone, the gambler himself has to press charges. So in most cases, the guilty parties are acquitted,» say police.