Online gambling firms face new restrictions to protect customers during lockdown
Online bookmakers and gambling firms have been ordered to put tighter safeguards in place to protect customers during the Covid-19 crisis and have been warned by both the industry regulator and the government they are being closely watched.
The Gambling Commission said on Tuesday there was new evidence that showed some gamblers may be at greater risk of harm during lockdown and has issued guidance to operators including the need for affordability checks, restrictions on bonus offers and the prevention of "reverse withdrawals".
The commission said data collected from the gambling industry in March and YouGov surveys showed that gambling participation is down overall during lockdown and there was no evidence to suggest an increase in problem gambling.
However, they added the evidence showed that the shift away from sports betting (number of bets down 31 per cent) as a result of Covid-19 had led to an increase in the use of online slots (25 per cent), poker (38 per cent), casino gaming (three per cent) and virtual sports (40 per cent).
Nearly two thirds of what were described as "engaged" gamblers reported they had increased the time or money that they were spending on at least one online gambling activity, including National Lottery products, while there had also been a 23 per cent increase in the number of gambling sessions lasting more than an hour.
As a result operators have been told to make a series of actions including preventing reverse withdrawal options - in which customers reverse a request to withdraw funds from their account - until further notice.
They must also cease to offer bonuses or promotions to customers displaying indicators of harm and bring in a number of further customer interaction and checks, with the changes expected to be made "as soon as possible".
The commission added it would bring forward plans to consult on whether further targeted player protection measures are required on a permanent basis.
Gambling Commission chief executive Neil McArthur said: "Operators must use the data they hold to protect their customers and now, more than ever, it’s vital that online operators really know their customers by monitoring how long they are playing for and understanding how financial uncertainty is impacting them and what they can afford to gamble with./
"To ensure operators do that, we are strengthening our guidance and expect operators to take account of that to prevent bonus offers or inducements being offered to customers who are showing any sign of harm."
The regulator said it would accelerate work it had been doing to address issues surrounding online gambling because of the lockdown situation.
McArthur added: "We will continue to monitor and publish the data that we are collecting and we will take further measures if required./
"We are monitoring online operators closely and if we see irresponsible behaviour we will step in immediately, suspending licences if we need to."
That threat of further action was echoed by the minister for sports, tourism and heritage Nigel Huddleston.
He said: "It is vital that people are protected from the threat of gambling-related harm and I welcome these latest steps from the Gambling Commission.
"We will continue to monitor the situation closely and will not hesitate to take further action if required."
In response, the Betting and Gaming Council said it "fully supported" the Gambling Commission’s commitment to protecting players and outlined the actions the body had taken in recent weeks including withdrawal of television adverts and implementing the ban on gambling by credit card.
A spokesperson added: "The Gambling Commission report shows that for the month of March, which is both pre and post-lockdown, overall participation in gambling is down. We also welcome the fact that according to the Gambling Commission, there is no evidence that the current Covid-19 crisis has led to an increase in problem gambling.
"Millions of people enjoy gambling occasionally, whether that’s with the National Lottery or with regulated BGC members, and the overwhelming majority of people do so perfectly safely.
"It is important that any future changes are evidence-led and that regulations are not made on the hoof."
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