Hong Kong police have smashed a football gambling ring and seized bets worth HK$78 million (US$9.9 million) in a crackdown on illegal bookmaking as the World Cup kicks off.

In an operation Wednesday night codenamed “Blazespike”, police said they arrested 42 men and three women for offences including illegal bookmaking and managing unlawful gambling establishments.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

They also seized cash worth more than HK$2.5 million, a large number of computers and a small amount of drugs.

“Preliminary investigation shows that those arrested include the mastermind and core members of the syndicate. Some of them have a triad background,” police said in a statement.

“The police believe this operation has successfully dismantled an illegal bookmaking syndicate.”

In a parallel operation across the border, mainland Chinese police arrested another five men believed to be part of the same gambling ring.

Gambling in Hong Kong is restricted to authorised outlets for betting on horse racing, football and the local lottery.

Illegal bookmakers could face a maximum fine of HK$5 million and up to seven years in jail while those using their services could face a fine of HK$30,000 and up to nine months’ imprisonment.

Despite the stiff penalties, illegal gambling has grown exponentially in recent years. During the 2014 World Cup, police seized cash and betting slips worth a record HK$750 million.

Illegal bookmakers are said to offer better odds and easier credit terms — although failure to repay can lead to violent reprisals, according to police.

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