WHENEVER the government is urged to do something about problem gambling, it insists that the industry regulator, the Gambling Commission, has the answer. When it comes to the most basic issue of a bookie refusing to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds owed to punters, however, the commission is entirely useless.
Eye reader Richard Stone ran up winnings of just under £5,000 with online sports betting company Canbet last summer. When he tried to withdraw the first £2,000 of his winnings from Canbet into his own account in September 2013, nothing happened. Online gambling forums were already filling with complaints about Canbet; so sensing a bigger problem, Stone tried complaining to the Gambling Commission last October.
The commission told Mr Stone to use Canbet’s own complaints procedure. Despite sending several emails, he didn’t receive a penny. By 31 December Canbet had stopped taking bets altogether, admitting it didn’t have the cash to pay what it already owed. Last month angry Australian punters took legal action against the firm over £160,000 of unpaid winnings.
Canbet is an Australian firm based in Melbourne. But thanks to its international web presence it chose to be regulated by the UK’s Gambling Commission. This was handy because UK regulators, faced with mounting complaints, did almost nothing.
In a letter to David Ward, Mr Stone’s MP in Bradford East, Gambling Commission chief executive Jenny Williams says that even though it was “aware of Canbet's problems in November last year… On this occasion we have not yet considered it necessary to commence formal regulatory action”.
Williams admits that “a large number of people have been affected by Canbet’s failure to pay amounts due” and adds: “This is a matter of great concern to us.” However, according to Williams, taking action is almost as bad as doing nothing. “There are difficult choices to be made. If we stop a business from trading or cast serious doubt on its future, it is highly likely that the business will not be able to pay its customers.” She admitted that this may look as if “we are not protecting those players properly”.
‘At their own risk’
Instead of taking enforcement action, the commission contacted Canbet and received “some assurances about Canbet’s financial circumstance”. It allowed Canbet to keep trading, although these “assurances” have been hollow. Jenny Williams closed her letter by arguing that “People using betting operators need to understand that they do so at their own risk” as there is little the commission can do.
If the regulator can’t deal with a bookie who doesn’t pay up, what hope is there it can deal with the wider social issues raised by gambling?