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May the 7th: UKGC Gambling Reforms

by Glenn Baird - April 10, 2019

Last year the UKGC proposed making a number of changes to online gambling regulations in the UK “to make gambling online in Britain safer than ever before”. As of May the 7th of this year a number of those proposals will become a reality.

These changes are causing significant frustration within the industry, where profit margins will undoubtedly be impacted within the UK market, but there are significant questions to be asked as to whether the approaches taken by the regulator will have the intended impact.

12 months ago there was a huge drive within the media to protect those considered most vulnerable from the harmful effects of online gambling. It was reported that up to half a million people in the UK had been diagnosed with gambling addiction. High profile names from all walks of celebrity life came out and confessed their own grim stories. Fortunes. Relationships. Dignity. All lost in the unforgiving grip of a crushed betting slip.

Worst of all were the reports, released by the UKGC, revealing that 3% of children aged between 11 and 16 had gambled online.

Neil McArthur, Gambling Commission Chief Executive responded to the clamour for reform by announcing that changes would be coming: “Britain has the largest regulated online gambling market in the world and we are continually looking for ways to make it even fairer and safer for consumers.”

“The proposals we have announced today are intended to protect children better, reduce the risks to vulnerable consumers and build on the measures we already impose on operators to know their customers and intervene at an earlier stage before consumers experience harm.”

His words were echoed by Tracey Crouch, who was at the time Minister for Sport and Civil Society, when she said: “We are committed to ensuring the gambling industry is safe and sustainable. These proposals for additional regulations will strengthen the controls already in place and further safeguard children and vulnerable people from the risks of online gambling.”

The Original Proposals

After lengthy discussions the following proposals were drawn up:

  • Improvements in the speed and effectiveness of age verification processes
  • Setting limits on consumer spending until confirmation of earnings can support gambling requests
  • Tougher measures on unfair terms, misleading or inappropriate marketing and an improved set of procedures for complaints and disputes
  • Asking operators to do more to interact with consumers who may be problem gamblers or in danger of becoming problem gamblers.

Within the article the UKGC announced that it has set itself the following 5 targets over the next year:

  • Assess the effectiveness of the current tools available to consumers to manage their gambling
  • Review gambling product characteristics to identify whether particular features pose greater risk of harm than others
  • Review our requirements on the protection of customer funds and consider whether there are sufficient protections around dormant accounts
  • Consider whether gambling on credit should continue to be permitted
  • Consider whether we need to make changes to ensure that consumers can withdraw funds more easily.

A year later and at least two of the proposals are set to see the light of day, with May the 7th established as the time for that change.

We obviously welcome any change that keeps vulnerable gamblers and children safe. That, above all else, should be everyone’s priority, and if these changes can genuinely achieve that then we will applaud the UKCG for making those changes.

But before we dust off the ticker-tape we need to look at the changes that we know are coming and at some of the remaining proposals that could still see the light of day and question how effective they can be and what their potential impact could be to online gambling in the UK.

Credit Cards

Any changes to the use of credit cards as a means of depositing money have yet to be confirmed but if the start of the year is anything to go by we might not have much longer to wait.

In January, Jeremy Wright, the UK’s Culture Secretary said: “Gambling operators must step in and act when people are showing signs of risky gambling. Their licences are at risk if they do not,”

Adding: “We should also ask if it is right that people should be able to gamble on credit and this is an area that the Gambling Commission are going to look into.”

Concerns were that problem gamblers could spend money they didn’t actually have, feeding their addiction and subsequently plunging themselves into a spiral of debt.

At the time that Wright made this announcement the UKGC reaffirmed their proposal to tackle issues surrounding credit cards: “In our online review last year we said we will consider prohibiting or restricting the use of credit cards and will explore the consequences of doing so.”

A year down the line from the initial report and 3 months after Wright’s statement and the proposal is still just that. There was consultation in February but as of now there is no prohibition and no restrictions have been made on the use of credit cards to fund gambling.

An article published on Gaming Slots suggests that preventing the use of credit cards to fund gambling might not be as good an idea as it first sounds. They point out that preventing gamblers from using credit cards is more of an inconvenience than a solution. If credit cards cannot be used directly with the operator then all the consumer needs to do is move that credit into a debit card, a bank account or even a ewallet account. The money has to come from somewhere, the fact that it can’t come directly from a credit card does not mean that credit cards are suddenly made redundant. All it means is that the consumer now needs a middle man.

It also presumes that credit is the exclusive domain of the credit card providers. Personal loans, payday loans and even bank account overdrafts would all remain accessible for gambling as operators would have no way of knowing that these funds originated from credit rather than personal assets without highly invasive ‘Source of Wealth’ checks for every customer.

The major advantage with credit cards is the statutory protection that comes with them. You take that away and consumers are no longer protected against the non-delivery of funds that can happen if a casino goes bust and can’t afford to pay its own debts.

For now, the proposal on banning the use of credit cards to deposit money into casino accounts remains just a proposal, but is something that could see the light of day at some point in the near future. The fact that it has not kept pace with pre-verification legislation is perhaps an indication of just how tricky the subject is.

Pre-Verification/Registration

As of the 7th of May 2019, UK licensed operators will now be required to verify their player’s identity at point of registration, before the player is allowed to engage with any gambling services. This will make it harder for consumers who have been self-excluded to sign up using different details. The information will be shared throughout casinos that hold the same licence, making it very difficult for this part of the system to be bypassed.

This is also likely to be the most effective deterrent keeping young people safe from gambling. Unless a child has access to their parents’ credit cards, passports and utility bills it would appear that anyone under the age of 18 will now find it almost impossible to gamble online after May the 7th.

Yet, the process will not be a straight forward one. Anyone wanting to play at a casino or spend money on sports betting will need to do more than just sign up. You will now need to provide proof of identity; passport, utility bill, driving licence. Anyone who has had their identity questioned by a casino before will have experienced this rigmarole at the point of withdrawal.

By engaging verification requirements for most customers at the point of withdrawal, gambling operators ensured that there was an incentive to the player to engage with these requests – namely that the player was looking to get paid. At the point of registration the player does not have this incentive. Where consumers will begrudgingly engage with these types of requests to open a bank account or renew their passport, it seems likely that asking them to hand over this type of documentation simply to be allowed to place a bet on today’s match will seem overly invasive and onerous and that many perfectly legitimate consumers will simply be put off engaging all together.

Alongside this the time and the resources needed to implement verification measures is likely to represent a significant cost to UK licensed operators. The big guns will have the staff needed to turn registrations around quickly but smaller outlets, who may find themselves caught between spiralling costs to verify accounts quickly and delays verifying new accounts, could find that the time they leave the consumer waiting is long enough for them to take their money elsewhere.

Verifying someone’s legitimacy to gamble online will require training and staff to be available 24 hours around the clock. The truth is that many smaller outlets quite possibly will not have the cash flow to pay members of staff to sit around 24 hours a day waiting to verify signs ups. Gambling is, for better or worse (more often than not, worse), often motivated by impulse. Take that impulsivity away and how many continue to place the bet, or go away and find someone else who can satisfy that impulse?

Take a big event like the Grand National as an example. It’s a big draw for people who wouldn’t normally gamble. It could mean setting up an account on the day of the race as many will make the decision last minute that they want to take part. If verification is going to take even a few hours then you’ll go somewhere where it won’t.

The consequences to the industry of this requirement are two fold – increased costs and a reduction in the number of players who go on to gamble after registering (i.e. reduced profits).

With increased overheads and reduced profits the likely result is many operators withdrawing from the UK market meaning that consumers will be left with less diversity and fewer choices as the gambling landscape in the UK is likely to become dominated by a few large, wealthy companies. This appears to be happening already with 188Bet withdrawing from the UK market at the end of March. This narrowing of the market will mean that outlets can win over consumers without having to try as hard as they currently do. Those that do not withdraw are likely to have less to spend on marketing budgets, meaning less frequent and weaker promotions being offered to players. The consequences of this are the same as in any industry: less choice and value for money.

There is a valid question to be asked here regarding the point at which a strategy intended to impede vulnerable individuals accessing gambling simply ends up putting everyone off engaging with the market.

While all of the above is concerning, many would view lower engagement with the online gambling industry as being an overall positive for society. However the risk with this type of approach is that engagement with online gambling does not decrease, only engagement with UK regulated sectors of the market. There are still large numbers of online gambling companies that do not hold a UKGC license accepting players from the UK. While the UKGC has been working to restrict these companies from accessing the UK market this is still a widespread problem. Our service manages complaints from dozens of UK players each month against unlicensed operates (and this is likely the tiniest fraction of the overall UK market engagement with the unlicensed markets). With no registration barriers in place with these unlicensed operators there is a significant risk that unlicensed operators become more attractive to UK consumers. The implementation of pre-verification risks channelling consumers to the unlicensed markets. This could result in high levels of the most vulnerable consumers ending up engaging with the operators who take least interest in offering them any protections and who have no oversight to speak of.

Demo Casino Game

From the 7th of May you will no longer be able to play demo games at casinos in the UK without being verified there. This also means that any other websites offering free to play games (advertising and review sites) will likely be required to prevent UK players from being able to play them.

Again, this would appear to be an excellent preventative, keeping underage children free from the addictive nature of slot machines, until they are old enough to think more rationally about the implications of playing them.

However, this means that UK slots players will only be able to “try before they buy” in the casinos that they are verified and registered with. They won’t be able to visit websites that review slots games before making an informed decision about what they want to play and where they want to play it.

In many instances a positive experience playing a demo game can lead to players signing up to casinos they know will stock it. Without the free to play experience there is likely to be lower engagement in the market from legitimate players and the viability for operators to continue to access the UK market is again likely to suffer. This will impact, not just on the smaller online casinos who might draw in players by offering a more varied selection of slots games, but also on software developers who will find fewer outlets to sell their games to.

This is particularly grating when you consider that the UKGC released the following statement last year in relation to a form of free-to-play gambling that millions of young people in this country are exposed to every day:

“In practical terms this means that where in-game items obtained via loot boxes are confined for use within the game and cannot be cashed out it is unlikely to be caught as a licensable gambling activity. In those cases our legal powers would not allow us to step in.”

In which case, what we all want to know is, why have the UKGC’s legal powers allowed them to step in now and restrict free to play demo games when absolutely nothing can be cashed in while disengaging from loot boxes? If we are really looking to protect young people from the addictive nature of gambling, to prevent them from problems in adulthood then surely we need to forget semantics about what constitutes gambling and accept that the same principles should be applied to loot boxes, player packs and skins betting in games like Fortnite, Fifa and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive? Games that actively ARE targeted at children.

The ultimate hypocrisy is that whilst skins betting and loot boxes don’t not involve money directly, there is still something at stake, something that young people value much more highly than the nothing that they can win in a free-to-play demo game and which can be traded and sold in various market places.

And let’s not forget how easy all this is to circumvent. With the click of a VPN button your computer can appear to be anywhere on the planet that you need it to be in order to gain access to anything you want it to. This goes beyond “if there’s a will, there’s way” because “the way” is so easy that “the will” barely needs to break sweat.

The Bigger Issue

What does all of this mean for online gambling in the UK? Firstly, you would like to think that those who are most vulnerable to the dangers that gambling can pose will be safer than they were before. That, self-exclusion in the UK is more robust than it was before and that those who have yet to develop a gambling habit may never actually do so.

As for the industry? As I have already mentioned, the new measures that are coming into place will need financed and many operators currently functioning within the UK market may struggle to meet these expenses. This means that smaller companies are likely to disappear. The market could become less competitive as those who cannot afford to offer pre-verification leave the UK completely.

Add to this the highest rate of tax in Europe and it becomes less and less financially viable for small operators to carve out profits in the UK. Consumers will be left with less choice. The operators who remain will have less need to offer incentives. And most worrying of all, unlicensed casinos will hoover up a bigger piece of the pie.

Right now casinos who don’t bother with a licence, who don’t pay any tax and who are entirely unregulated are rubbing their hands with glee. For them, this is an opportunity. They won’t ask for pre-verification, self-exclusion or proof of age. All they care about is making as much money as they can, at the expense of whoever is willing to hand cash over to them.

It is those who are already embroiled in the mire of gambling addiction that we should worry about the most. Those who need to gamble but can’t find a regulated casino to take their money.

Let’s not kid ourselves on. These measures will not solve the problem or underage access to gambling entirely, neither will banning gambling completely. They will help some, they will hinder others, but what we cannot do is allow existing problem gamblers to fall foul of unregistered, unlicensed and unregulated casinos that do not care a single jot for the welfare of those they are looking to bleed dry.