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Competition watchdog to investigate online betting firms 22/10/2016
Alexandra Topping and Rob Davies
• Bookies could lose licences over claims they use ‘misleading promotions’ and ‘unfair terms’ to deceive customers

Online betting companies who overturn gamblers’ winning bets using loopholes buried in the small print of their websites face losing their licences, after the competition regulator launched a probe into the industry.

The Competition and Markets Authority said it had begun a review asking betting websites to explain allegations that they use “misleading promotions” and “unfair terms” to deceive customers.

The regulator is understood to be receiving a flood of complaints already from gamblers who feel cheated by an industry that wins £4bn a year from them.

“Gambling inevitably involves taking a risk, but it shouldn’t be a con,” said Nisha Arora, the CMA’s senior director for consumer enforcement.

“We’re worried players are losing out because gambling sites are making it too difficult for them to understand the terms on which they’re playing, and may not be giving them a fair deal.

“We’ve heard worrying complaints suggesting people may be lured into signing up for promotions with little chance of winning because of unfair and complex conditions.”

Sarah Harrison, chief executive of industry regulator the Gambling Commission said online betting firms were “not doing enough” to draw up fair terms and conditions, which often “bamboozle” customers.

The CMA has the power to take firms to court for breach of the Enterprise Act, while the Gambling Commission can revoke betting firms’ licence to operate in the UK.

The Remote Gambling Association, which represents online betting firms, played down the scale of the problem.

The RGA said it would co-operate with the CMA probe but added: “There is no reason to believe that there are widespread failings.”

“If there are faults it is right that the CMA shines a light on them and that we collectively learn lessons from that.

“However, it would be wrong to pre-judge the outcome of an inquiry that has only just begun.”

About 5.5 million people regularly use gambling websites in Britain, and the sector has grown 146% since 2009, according to the CMA.

Online betting firms won about £4bn from gamblers in the 11 months to September 2015, according to the Gambling Commission.

“Gambling, by its very nature, is always going to involve risk but customers must have faith that if they win they will not end up feeling that the deck is stacked against them because of an obscure condition that they did not properly understand,” said Harrison.

Brian Chappell, 59, set up the campaign group Justice4Punters in March this year after several of his online betting accounts were shut down, said bookmakers were regularly changing the odds after a bet had been won, claiming the customer had breached their conditions.

Customers who placed successful odds regularly saw their accounts closed, with no reason given.

“The websites follow all of your patterns, if you seem to be doing sensible things then they shut your account down, they are often getting rid of anyone who has any ability at all,” he said.

Regulatory sources said some companies would allow a customer to place a bet at 10/1, for instance, then cancel the bet claiming they made a mistake when setting the odds.