Gambling Commission Admits ‘Concern’ Over Illegal WhatsApp Bookmakers in the UK

Whatsapp on smartphoneMatt Hancock is an MP that’s no stranger to shamelessly jumping on a bandwagon or self-promotion – hence his stint on ITV show I’m A Celebrity.

But he’s been doing something rather alien to him in the past few months: selflessly banging the drum for horse racing, lambasting the damage that would be caused to the sport by the introduction of affordability checks on punters – including an estimated loss of £500 million in revenue.

Hancock was vocal in a Parliamentary debate on the topic on Monday, which perhaps isn’t a surprise given that Newmarket is a key part of his constituency.

He implemented the maximum stake limit on FOBTs in his days as the culture secretary, but he’s more liberal when it comes to sports betting – and particularly its importance to the funding of racing.

And he was not quiet in expressing his opinion on proposed affordability checks: “We are making a mistake, so we must stop and start again.”

Enormous Damage

Monday’s Parliamentary debate heard from various ministers with concerns about affordability checks, and those who are in support of them as a barrier to damaging problem gambling behaviours. Whichever side of the fence you sit, it’s thought that checks will be imposed upon punters that lose £125 or more in 30 days or £500 in a year.

Hancock spoke of his opinion that ‘I am afraid to say that the current proposals will make problems worse rather than reducing them’, referring to problem gambling, while Chris Grayling MP, whose constituency incorporates Epsom, commented: “In a smaller centre, in which the owners are not wealthy Arabs but simply people who enjoy participating in racing, the impact on the trainers of measures that really damage the industry would be enormous.”

There were plenty of ministers speaking in favour of affordability checks, or measures of that nature, in the room, while the government as a whole continues to stand by stock statements: “We are committed to a proportionate, frictionless system of financial risk checks, to protect those at risk of harm without over-regulating. The Gambling Commission will set out plans in due course,” is one, while the gambling minister, Stuart Andrew, has said:

“Our White Paper strikes a balance between consumer freedom – preserving the rights of those who enjoy gambling and suffer no ill-effects – with the necessary action to tackle harmful gambling and the devastating consequences it can have for some individuals and communities.”

Hancock, meanwhile, pushed the debate towards black market gambling and illegal bookmakers, whose take-up is likely to increase as punters become frustrated with restrictions and intrusive checks on their accounts.

“Many of the offshore gambling firms explicitly target those signed up to the GAMSTOP service and there is a grim irony that the regulator and the Government are, unfortunately, making the problem worse.”

The concerns of those within the industry would suggest he’s not wrong, either.

Slipping Through the Net

Gambling Commission chief Andrew Rhodes has admitted that illegal bookmakers are a problem in the UK – and revealed that identifying them, and stopping them from doing business, is one of the ‘hardest challengers’ facing the regulator.

Rhodes was talking to the Racing Post this week, revealing the tough task his organisation faced in tracking down illegal bookies in an age of social media networks like WhatsApp.

That follows the Racing Post’s own investigation into a black market firm named The Post, which has more than 1,300 customers through WhatsApp – including, according to the paper’s sources, prominent people within the sport.

“A lot of our customers at the moment are owners and trainers and racing managers within horseracing, ultimately because everyone is struggling to get on and people don’t want to provide bank statements and affordability checks,” said the firm’s commercial manager, Haydon Simcock, to undercover reporters.

Most concerning of all is that Simcock and The Post aren’t trying to hide their identity – openly advertising via WhatsApp, a platform that remains difficult to police.

The Commission’s solution? To plead with punters to blow the whistle if they’re approached by, or hear of, unlicensed bookmakers on social media. “We can’t act on the things we simply don’t know about,” Rhodes has said.

It should be said that there are bookmakers operating a WhatsApp service that are legitimate – they have a Gambling Commission licence and a registered trading address.

However, regulated bookmakers are still under no obligation to segregate their customers’ funds from their own – meaning that if they go bust, there’s a chance that punters will be left out of pocket.

You can send them a WhatsApp message in this event, but I dare say you won’t be getting a reply….