A charity for problem gamblers has called on popular betting operators to immediately implement mandatory deposit and spending limits on online gambling platforms for the duration of the Covid-19 lockdown.
Problem Gambling Ireland has called on the chief executives of Paddy Power/Betfair, BoyleSports, Ladbrokes and other gambling operators to take the initiative over fears that online gambling could increase in popularity while betting shops are closed.
"Live sport is extremely limited at the moment, so vulnerable people are turning to virtual sports, online slots and casino gambling," said Barry Grant, chief executive and founder of Problem Gambling Ireland.
"Several European countries, including Latvia, Lithuania, Belgium, Spain and Portugal, have already implemented restrictions on online gambling and/or advertising of online gambling platforms."
Online gambling has been banned in Latvia as part of the country's emergency coronavirus bill.
On April 21, the UK's culture minister wrote to the chief executives of the five largest gambling operators in Britain to ask them to take extra steps to protect players.
The UK's gambling self-exclusion service Gamstop has experienced a large increase in people seeking to break self-exclusion following the lockdown.
In Australia, consumer spending on online gambling has increased by 67pc in recent weeks, according to Mr Grant.
A system of mandatory deposit limits already exists for the Irish National Lottery's online platform.
"Online betting is more addictive than traditional betting. A betting shop closes at night and you have to go home, but with online gambling you can do it 24/7," Mr Grant added.
"Online you can bet on tennis games all over the world, NFL, Australian horse racing, anything really. There's always something going on somewhere in the world.
"But a lot of that is cut back now, and betting sites have come up with alternatives.
"Some sites have nine different virtual sporting events going on every two minutes, 24 hours a day. They are animated cartoon events run off an algorithm."
Mr Grant said virtual sporting events even had form guides for the virtual participants, showing how each had "done" in their last outings.
"This feeds into what is called the 'gambler's fallacy', a belief that they can predict an outcome," he added.
"Even in online roulette you can see what the outcome was for the last five spins for example, even though it has no influence on the next spin.
"There is an equal chance of each spin being black or red.
"Long before Covid people were getting into trouble with the virtuals. There is no discernible pattern with them. They are a computer programme.
"The danger is the frequency of them. In reality betting on an actual event there are windows of time between races and events. There is a time to reflect, and maybe think that stopping would be an option.
"But with virtual and online betting, those time windows hardly exist at all.
"You could move to the virtual events, which give a quicker hit. Some people might start on the virtual events in between real events.
"But then you get to online slots and roulette where the games are over in seconds, and you can also put the game on a turbo setting to speed it up.
"People get lured in with cash offers of free spins, but it's virtually impossible to cash in that money. It needs to be replayed numerous times first.
"For somebody coming from traditional forms of betting, the online betting is far more dangerous."
However, the lockdown has resulted in a massive reduction of calls to Problem Gambling Ireland.
"Since the lockdown we've seen calls to our lines fall off a cliff, by around 50pc. Other helplines have found a similar pattern," said Mr Grant.
"We don't know why that is but one theory is that people are stuck in their houses with their families and are finding it harder to be able to make private phone calls where they might be seeking help.
"We might not know what effect the lockdown has had on gambling here until some point in the future."
Problem Gambling Ireland was set up by Mr Grant, an addiction counsellor, four years ago.
"We typically work with males in their 30s. They are the ones most seeking help. It is our biggest demographic," he said.
"Maybe it is because they are developing long-term relationships, or trying to buy a house, and they see how gambling has become a problem. Banks are checking for gambling apps from loan applicants.
"We are also seeing more and more women with problems with online slots and casino games, which run 24/7.
"These are the games with the really fast turnaround and autoplay."