The year of 2017 was a tough one for online gambling operators licensed in the UK as several leading companies faced hefty fines for their misleading advertising content. BGO was the first one to suffer a penalty for its advertising failures after a review of the local regulatory authority, the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC), established the operator and several of its affiliates have violated their license conditions. As a result, the UKGC fined the operator with £300,000.
Several other major gambling providers like Ladbrokes and Sky Bet also faced huge fines after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), UK’s advertising regulator, established they have targeted vulnerable customers with their adverts with misleading content. As a result, operators like Ladbrokes significantly reduced the number of affiliates they partner with while other companies like Sky Bet dropped their affiliate programmes altogether.
The end of the year saw the local regulatory authorities tighten the advertising policies even further after the Gambling Commission, along with the ASA and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), challenged locally licensed gambling operators for using advertising content that might appeal to minors. Such ads were deemed harmful because they were easily accessible by minors, so faulty operators were ordered by the regulators to remove content of this type from their websites.
UKGC Shows No Signs of Slowing Down in 2018
The Gambling Commission apparently has no intention of slowing down where faulty gambling adverts and customer protection are concerned. February 2018 saw the introduction of new, tougher advertising standards but this time the focus fell on ads whose content may attract the attention of compulsive gamblers. The new guidelines, which were proposed by the UKGC and enforced by the ASA, cover adverts that feature several types of promotional incentives online gambling operators commonly offer to their customers.
Under the new set of rules, web-based betting operators are restricted from using specific phrases that urge the customer to immediately make a bet during live sporting events. Such advertisements frequently resort to using phrases like “Bet Now” which, however, are considered to be out of line by the regulatory authorities.
The same applies to content that promotes placing bets repetitively. It is not hard to see what the problem with such advertising content is, especially when vulnerable players are watching or reading the ads.
One of the most commonly-spread ways to attract customers is to offer them “Risk Free” bonuses. The trouble is these offers are not entirely void of risk, after all, because the players are required to deposit in order to obtain the free funds. This, however, is usually not stated clearly in the ads’ themselves, but can be read in the lengthy terms and conditions of the casino instead. Such peculiarities of the offers should be displayed prominently to prevent misunderstanding on behalf of potential customers.
The new advertising standards also call for operators to drop all commercial content that promotes gambling as a means of making money. Further stress is placed on the importance of identifying compulsive gambling behaviour and abstaining from portraying the signs of such behaviour in advertising campaigns.
The Regulators Have Already Started to Fine Violators
In 2018, betting operators are expected to improve on their customer protection policies and have until the beginning of April to remove advertising materials that violate the new standards. Needless to say, those who fail to comply with the new advertising guidelines will have to face the consequences, which normally come in the form of heavy fines.
One of the first to get a penalty was ElectraWorks, a subsidiary of GVC Holdings, which had to pay a fine of £350,000 after the Gambling Commission established the company had been misleading its customers repeatedly with advertisements of its “Free” bonus.
Major UK betting operator William Hill was also under fire for failing to comply with the customer protection regulations. The company breached several guidelines of the new regulations which have to do with preventing money laundering and fraud. As a result, the operator was fined by the UKGC in February for a total of £6.2 million.
The biggest issue here was that William Hill profited with as much as £1.2 million for the period between November 2014 and August 2016 after ten of its customers repeatedly deposited money they have gained illegally. Due to lack of proper control on behalf of the operator, several customers were allowed to deposit six-figure amounts over a period of 18 months or less. Thus, the operator was ordered to pay £5 million because of its violations of the regulations as well as to return the £1.2 million it gained in profits from the deposits of the ten customers.
One of the most prominent examples when it comes to failure to protect vulnerable customers is the gambling operator 888. Last year, the company was hit with a massive penalty to the amount of £7.8 million after over 7,000 of its customers who have voluntarily self-excluded from using its services were in fact still allowed to place bets due to a technical failure.
The self-excluded customers managed to deposit jointly as much as £3.5 million into their “locked” accounts. As a result, the customers succeeded in gambling away the huge amount of £51 million after recycling their winnings repeatedly. One of the customers even succeeded in wagering as much as £1.3 million, including £55,000 they have stolen from their employers to fuel their problem gambling.
UK Regulators Fight against Unfair Withdrawal Policies
Measures are also to be taken against the unfair withdrawal policies of some gambling companies, operating under UK licensing. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) addressed interactive gambling firms in regard to some of their withdrawal terms that might prevent their customers from cashing out their money easily.
One of the aspects the CMA is concerned with has to do with the daily, weekly and monthly withdrawal limits that are deemed way too low at some web-based casinos. According to the CMA, players at some online casinos are given a very short period of time to verify their identities and payment methods. Verification is normally required when a new customer registers with an online casino and requests a withdrawal for the very first time. If the customer fails to complete the verification process during the designated timeframe, their funds may sometimes be forfeited by the casino.
The same applies to some gambling operators’ terms that relate to dormant, i.e. inactive accounts. If a given customer has not accessed their account within the period of time specified by the operator, their funds are sometimes seized by the casino. On other occasions, a dormancy fee is applied and subtracted from the player’s existing balance.
The CMA deems such withdrawal policies rather restrictive and recommends betting firms to take a closer look at their terms and conditions in order to re-evaluate them and ensure they are fair to their customers.
UKGC Promotes Gender Diversity in the Gambling Industry
Another issue that sparked the discontent of UK’s gambling regulator had to do with the lack of gender diversity in the gaming industry. At the beginning of February, Sarah Harrison, Chief Executive of the Gambling Commission, revealed her intention to address this issue during this year’s International Casino Conference.
Harrison presumably took issue with the way the female employees at the participating companies’ hosting booths at events like ICE Totally Gaming were dressed. It has become the norm for such female employees to wear scanty clothing for the purpose of attracting more customers to their stands.
The ICE Totally Gaming conference is considered one of the largest annual events in the online gambling industry and as such, attracts tens of thousands of attendees and delegates. The UKGC Chief Executive pointed out there are plenty of competent and skilled women in this industry, citing Denise Coates, the Chief Executive of gambling giant bet365, as an example. Harrison pointed out that the participation of the regulatory authority in future ICE Totally Gaming events depends on whether or not the conference embraces the idea of gender diversity.
Following Harrison’s remarks, Clarion Gaming, the organizer of the annual ICE Totally Gaming conference warned participating companies that they are expected to present their products and offerings in a non-offensive fashion that does not rely on stereotyping their employees on the basis of gender.