The past five years have seen the number of complaints against British betting firms rise by almost 5,000%. According to figures obtained by BBC Panorama from the UK Gambling Commission, the number of complaints in 2018 was a record 8,266. The increase is incredibly huge, considering there were only 169 complaints filed in 2013.
Most of the complaints compiled within the last five years were about gambling firms refusing to pay out wins or failing to operate in a manner that is socially responsible. The rise in the number of complaints is directly proportional to the increase in UK gambling over the last ten years.
In a bid to address the issue of social responsibility, big gambling firms have promised to allocate £60 million a year to help problem gamblers. They also say they are currently working on a plan to reduce the risk of gambling-related harm. Talking about the rise in the number of complaints against the industry, Gambling Commission Chief Executive Neil McArthur said there are complex reasons for the recent rise in complaints.
“We are pushing the industry to know its customers, and part of this is actually, possibly, a good sign because it’s suggesting that consumers are demanding more of the gambling operators. And I would encourage them to continue to do that,” he said.
The UK gambling industry has expanded rapidly ever since restrictions on betting and advertising were relaxed by the government in 2007. It has also been observed that gamblers are currently losing almost twice as much as they were to gambling companies about a decade ago. In 2018 alone, gamblers lost a record £14.5 billion.
The rapid expansion of the UK gambling industry is largely attributed to online gambling, where new products and games are constantly being released, attracting more and more new customers. Here are a couple of examples of how online gambling hooked individuals, which unfortunately led them to make decisions with tragic consequences:
Example #1: Bubble World
A woman who does not want to be identified started betting on an online gambling site called Jackpotjoy when she was in her 50s. Her story is a tragic one, as she gambled away all of the money she got from the sale of her house. But that’s not all. Her father left her a share of his house when he died, and she gambled that away on Jackpotjoy as well.
In total, the woman lost £633,000, making her last wager on the same day she was officially made bankrupt. “I was in a complete sort of lost bubble world,” she said. “To me it was just escapism and I would just sit online and I would just be pressing the button on my computer. It’s horrific what I’ve done to myself really. Everything that I had worked for. My children looked up to me and now I have blown their inheritance.”
According to Jackpotjoy, they have always acted in accordance with all relevant regulatory requirements. They further said they had even encouraged the woman to use responsible gambling tools. “This included the use of deposit limits, cooling-off periods, and alternative withdrawal methods; tools which Amanda (not her real name) was aware of and used during the time she played with us,” a company representative said.
High-stakes, fixed-odds betting machines (FOBT) have recently been banned from the High Street, but there are still countless high-stakes games online, since there are currently no legal limits for online games. This means there is still a huge possibility of players losing thousands of pounds within just a few minutes when they wager online. Those who complain and campaign against gambling harm say the government isn’t doing enough to protect the most vulnerable gamblers.
Example #2: Problem
Daniel Clinkscales struggled with a gambling addiction for years. The problem began when he was a well-paid sales manager and manifested itself when he started taking on extra jobs just so he can fund his gambling habit. When he could no longer handle the situation, he took his own life. He was 35.
According to his mother, Jo Holloway, Daniel managed to hide his gambling problem for many years. “I think he found it so hard to really come to terms with the fact that there he was--clever, intelligent, largely successful at almost everything he turned his hand to--and he’d got this one problem. Gambling.”
Holloway believes the gambling companies should bear the burden of responsibility because there will always be gamblers who simply do not know when or how to stop. She further said, “Gambling has been normalised. It has been made to look like something that everybody does innocently. It’s not. You can lose your house in an afternoon. How serious does it have to be before people will act?”
We may never know whether Holloway will get her wish or not, but it’s safe to say she won’t have her way anytime soon. The UK Gambling Commission has said that they have no plans of introducing maximum stakes for online games, primarily because online gaming operators are currently providing enough information to keep players safe, as well as to make sure they’re playing only with money they can afford to lose.
More importantly, major gambling companies have already agreed to increase their delivery of safer gambling messages. Additionally, they have promised to review the tone of all their promotional materials.
Problem gamblers are among those who are complaining against operators, saying bookies have a tendency to continue enticing them to place bets even after they’ve repeatedly asked to be taken off of mailing lists. There is even one problem gambler, who lost £125,000 at two online casinos--LeoVegas and Casumo--who is accusing gambling operators of completely ignoring the very obvious signs of her gambling addiction, continuing to offer her bonuses if she keeps on betting. She was formerly a successful accountant, but has lost £54,000 in a single night of betting spree. She is now receiving treatment for gambling addiction.
“They have algorithms where if you’re spending a lot they make you a VIP, or send you a bonus email and they use that to their advantage,” she said. “They could also use it to prevent problem gambling, which is what the commission say they should be doing.”
In another case, LeoVegas is being investigated by the Gambling Commission because of claims that they accepted £20,000 from a problem gambler who had stolen the money from his mother. The gambling operator was then said to have bombarded the gambler with emails that encouraged him to keep on betting.
Just last month, the Commission penalised Ladbrokes Coral, imposing a fine of £5.9 million over ‘systemic failings’ at the company to protect problem gamblers who have already lost huge amounts of money. This fine was one of the largest that has ever been imposed on a gambling operator.
Critics of the gambling industry also say that the promise of the top five betting operators to increase funding for the treatment of addiction is not enough to truly tackle problem gambling in an effective manner. They have even alleged it to be nothing more than a bribe to keep tougher regulations of the online gambling sector at bay. Some politicians, charity groups, and campaign groups have recently been calling for a mandatory tax.
Back in April, former Sport Minister Mims Davies received heavy criticism when he said that a mandatory levy was not necessary.
Call to Action
It was in mid-2018 when gambling firms received a call to action over their attitude concerning consumer welfare. The call to action was given in a report published by the UK Gambling Commission. The said report highlighted the way in which gambling companies must protect gamblers and stop money laundering. Gambling Commission Chief Neil McArthur told the BBC at the time:
“Overall the companies can do a lot more to demonstrate they care about consumers and want to treat them right and keep them safe. We want to use our powers to hopefully drive a culture where operators’ compliance is set right from the start and which innovates to protect consumers, plus drive profits. Our hope is that the report will be received as a call to action for the leaders of the industry. We want them to set the tone from the top in terms of leading a culture of compliance and really try to do the right thing for the consumer and work to raise standards for them.”
At the time the call to action was made, it was also announced that firms that refuse to comply with stricter rules will be subject to a wide range of sanctions. These sanctions will include fines or even the suspension or revocation of their license. One issue that the Commission wanted to focus on is the firms’ ability to spot unusual wagering patterns, either because of money laundering or players experiencing financial difficulties due to gambling.
“Firms need to know their customers and from where they get their money and how they can afford it. If the VIP team is involved then that’s what their relationship is all about,” McArthur said. “We want operators to put consumer welfare first, use all the data they have about people to get an overall view of individual customers at the earliest possible stage. When customers are playing online, the firms can see the deposits that are being put in and if the firms have questions about that then they can impose a deposit limit on players.”
Gambling Operators’ Response
The owners of William Hill, Paddy Power, Ladbrokes Coral, Bet 365, and Skybet were the first to respond to the UK Gambling Commission’s call to action as well as the increasing criticism from several parties. They all expressed their willingness to increase their voluntary levy on gambling profits to 1% until 2023. They claimed that this increase will be a ‘step change’ in the way they tackle addiction.
The companies further said that they will cumulatively spend £100 million on gambling addiction treatment over the next four years. When news of the government possibly taxing operators to pay for addiction treatment broke, an insider said that the industry had to act quickly: “The industry is on a precipice. If we don’t get ahead of this, we will end up where the alcohol industry was 10 years ago, and tobacco 30 years ago. The fear is that we face a ban on touchline advertising or football shirt sponsorship.”
Flutter Entertainment Chief Executive Peter Jackson said the top gambling firms’ agreement to increase their voluntary levy shows “an unprecedented level of commitment and collaboration by the leading companies in the British betting and gaming sector to address gambling-related harm.” He further said, “We think that is an important step to make. We do think we need to increase the amount of money that is available to protect the young and vulnerable.”
Charity group GambleAware, through their Chief Executive Marc Etches, commented on this move by the leading gambling operators, saying: “We welcome this initiative by the leading operators as it’s essential there is sufficient funding to provide for treatment and support for both problem gamblers and for those who are ‘at risk’--particularly the young and vulnerable. Customers should be able to gamble in a safe environment, where help and advice is readily available at the point of need.”
Jeremy Wright, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, added to the discussion, saying the gambling industry is responsible for problem gambling and contributing to the cost of treatment for rebuilding the lives of all those affected. “We will monitor closely the progress of these new measures and encourage the wider industry to step up. The government will not hesitate to take further action to protect people from gambling-related harm.”
The five leading gambling firms have also promised to review the tone and content of all their marketing and sponsorship materials. According to the Gambling Commission, there are around 430,000 individuals in the UK with a serious gambling addiction. The number rises to over two million if the count includes those who are at risk of addiction. Of this number, around 55,000 are aged 11 to 16.