Italian Mafia Bets on Illegal Online Gambling

Published: 04 March 2021

Slot MachineLike many criminal economies, illegal gambling is increasingly moving online (Photo: Aidan Howe, Pixabay, License)

By Alessandro Ford

Italian authorities announced on Wednesday the seizure of over 80 million euros (US$95.8 million) in assets and restriction orders against 23 people allegedly linked to Sicily’s Cosa Nostra for involvement in illegal gambling, aggravated fraud, tax evasion and money laundering.

Operation “Double Game” is investigating a staggering 336 individuals tied to an illegal online gambling scheme that spanned the Italian regions of Sicily, Emilia Romagna and Puglia, as well as Malta, Poland and Germany.

At its heart is the Santapaola-Ercolano clan, the ruling mafia faction in Sicily’s eastern province of Catania. This criminal consortium set up a sports betting website, “,” which though unauthorized to operate in Italy, managed to do so secretly by basing its servers in Malta.

From there, they minimized gambling using credit cards and online payment systems and instead encouraged physical cash bets at chosen shops and bars around the country. Though illegal in Italy without a proper license, such “over-the-counter” betting is widely tolerated.

This led to an illegal collection system that gathered over 62 million euros ($74.2 million), much of which was laundered by buying land, buildings and companies in Italy and Germany.

For Italy’s mafias, this is a common modus operandi. Maltese online gambling is an infamous cash cow for Italian organized crime, which since 2013 has infiltrated the sector by making deals with the owners of betting websites, many of whom are set up in Malta due to the more favorable tax regime.

A vast Maltese gambling network tied to Cosa Nostra was cracked in Sicily in 2018; months later a Maltese betting company was seized by Calabrian Police for its links to a powerful ‘Ndrangheta family. Investigations have revealed similar involvement in online gambling by the Neapolitan Camorra and Pugliese Sacra Corona Unita, as well as local Romanian and Chinese crime groups.

But the problem may now extend beyond Malta’s corrupt gambling industry, says Sergio Nazzaro, journalist and adviser to the Parliamentary Anti-Mafia Commission.

“We see money moving also in Poland and Germany so maybe this criminal infiltration is no longer just a problem for Malta but for all of Europe,” Nazzaro told OCCRP.

Most worryingly, increased online gambling during the pandemic has also supercharged both the amount of money and criminality involved, Nazzaro states.

“In 2018 legal gambling was worth around 20 billion euro ($24 billion) in Italy and almost 8,000 illegal websites were closed by financial police.” Those numbers, he predicts, are now even higher.