Problem gambling is a major issue for the betting industry and one that all companies are trying to find ways to solve. Those that need help should be able to get it from a number of different sources, but do they have the ability to ask for their money back if they’ve lost it as a problem gambler? The short answer is no, but it is a bit more complex than that.
There are steps that problem gamblers can take to stop themselves from being able to access their accounts and therefore gamble. The likes of self-exclusion schemes are the best way forward, but these don’t always work. In instances where that is the case, problem gamblers have been able to get the money back that they’ve lost.
The Definition Of A Problem Gambler
The first place to start in any discussing of problem gambling is with a definition of what the term actually refers to. After all, there’s a definite difference between someone who likes to have a flutter every now and then and someone who is addicted to gambling. Obviously problem gamblers are those that fall into the latter category rather than the former.
Problem gambling is when someone feels the continuous urge to gamble in spite of the fact that they want to stop and that the consequences of gambling are negative. The Royal College Of Psychiatrists define problem gambling as gambling that ‘disrupts or damages personal, family or recreational pursuits’. 9 people in every 1,000 are thought to be problem gamblers.
The National Health Service, meanwhile, has a list of questions for people to answer in order to help understand whether or not they’re problem gamblers. The questions include ones such as:
- Do you bet more than you can afford to lose?
- Have you tried to win back money you have lost?
- Has your gambling caused you any health problems, including feelings of stress or anxiety?
- Have you ever felt guilty about the way you gamble or what happens when you gamble?
If the majority of answers given by a person are ‘almost always’ or ‘most of the time’ then there’s a genuine chance that they’re a problem gambler.
What Options Are There For Problem Gamblers?
Just because someone is a problem gambler doesn’t mean that they’re a lost cause. There are all sorts of helpful things out there to assist people in dealing with their gambling problem, including the ability to self-exclude from being able to access gambling sites. You can self-exclude from each site individually, or you can use a service such as GamStop to cover many at the same time.
The idea behind self-exclusion is that stops you from being able to access sites that have a licence from the United Kingdom Gambling Commission for a given period. You can choose whether you want to be excluded from gambling for 6 months, a year or 5 years, whilst the Multi Operator Self Exclusion Scheme allows you to do the same thing with high street bookmakers.
If you self-exclude then you should no longer be able to place bets with the companies that you have excluded yourself from. Equally you should no longer receive marketing information from betting companies, or any inducements to gamble in any way, shape or form. The idea is to protect the most vulnerable people from gambling related harm.
Why Problem Gamblers Won’t Automatically Receive A Refund
If someone identifies as a problem gambler but continues to gamble and doesn’t look for any assistance from the likes of the MOSES or the self-exclusion scheme, they will not automatically be entitled to get money back that they’ve lost through gambling. There are many reasons for this, with the main one being that there’s nothing to prove that anyone is, indeed, a problem gambler.
Sadly people that don’t identify as problem gamblers would be just as able to request their money back as those that genuinely have an issue. People who simply don’t like the idea of losing their money could claim that they’re a problem gambler and demand their money back, so there needs to be a system to stop that from happening.
Whether we like it or not, gambling companies are businesses. Is it really fair that they should refund someone’s money after they’ve lost it? If a problem gambler doesn’t seek help and continues to gamble, is it the responsibility of the gambling company to give them back the money that they’ve lost? These are tricky questions to answer.
When A Problem Gambler’s Money Will Be Refunded
In reality, most problem gamblers do their best to seek help and gambling companies do everything that they can to help them. Those that have self-excluded should be denied access to their online gambling accounts and they shouldn’t be able to create new ones. Even people who attempt to create new accounts by changing their names or addresses should be stopped.
Of course, sometimes even the best laid plans don’t work out quite as everyone would like them to and there have been instances of people who have applied for self-exclusion still being able to login to their accounts and place wagers. Having access to accounts when they’ve specifically requested not to be able to isn’t the same as just losing money and being annoyed.
In instances where problem gamblers have still been able to place bets, the UKGC has taken a different view on the matter and has ordered online bookmakers and betting sites to return the money that has been lost. Obviously these are specific instances and fit into a different bracket to just problem gamblers wanting their money back after losing it.
Examples Of Refunded Money
There are numerous different examples of betting companies refunding money to customers when it has become clear that not enough was done to stop them from being able to bet and lose a large amount of money. In 2019, for example, a person known as ‘George’ was given a refund from a selection of companies after it was revealed that he had brain damage.
The money he gambled was compensation that had been awarded to him after he had been attacked outside a nightclub. The issue was that ‘George’ didn’t apply to GamStop or ask for his money back until after he’d lost it, so not all companies were willing to give him his money back. This was in spite of evidence that he did, indeed, have a brain injury.
Another example comes in the form of Karen Coughlan, who was one of a number of ‘vulnerable customers’ that 888 UK Limited failed to protect. She had remained able to bet with 888 despite having self-excluded, losing more than £130,000 in three weeks. That money was eventually refunded to her, with more than 7,000 people still able to bet in similar circumstances.
Over a period of eight years, an unnamed man lost more than £134,000 playing blackjack and roulette online. Though he didn’t actively try to self-exclude, lawyers argued that he showed ‘very obvious’ signs of being a problem gambler and that bookmakers should have done more to protect him. They were able to reclaim about 89% of his losses.
It’s not just in the United Kingdom where such things happen, either. In Australia the betting exchange company Betfair was forced to give back more than $150,000 after failing to ‘reasonably recognise’ that one of its customers had ‘red flag behaviours’. That included begging the company to reverse a $150,000 withdrawal request, which he then lost.
What The Law Says
The law on gambling is slightly unclear, with the Gambling Commission being responsible for coming up with the rules and regulations that betting companies must follow. If a company wishes to offer its services to a UK-based client then they’ll need to have a licence issued by the UKGC and abide by the conditions of that licence.
It’s clear from the manner in which the Labour Party has spent years trying to overhaul the legislation around online gambling that many feel that the rules and laws don’t go far enough, specifically with regards to protecting the most vulnerable. Whether bookmakers would agree with that is, of course, an entirely different matter.
Part of Labour’s objection is that the Gambling Act was made into Law in 2005 and is therefore ‘unfit for a digital age’. Incidents such as Ladbrokes agreeing to pay £1 million to the victims of problem gambling as long and they promised not to tell the Gambling Commission about it certainly raise red flags as to the usefulness of the Act in its current form.
The Gambling Commission believes that operators have what the regulator refers to as a ‘social responsibility’ towards people who use their services. This is designed to protect the most vulnerable from gambling related harm. There are three objectives within the licence issued by the UKGC that target this very thing.
The UKGC says that companies should be ‘Proactively interacting early enough and in the right way’ in order to stop customers from losing control of their gambling and may even stop them from heading down the route of self-exclusion. The thought of the Gambling Commission is that this approach will be ‘more sustainable’ for businesses in the long run.
Does The Industry Need Revising To Help Vulnerable People?
If problem gamblers are unable to get their money back without a gambling operator having broken the rules of the United Kingdom Gambling Commission, is there are argument for a complete overhaul of the Gambling Act, as Labour have been calling for? It’s certainly an argument that some have been making repeatedly in recent years.
The general thought of those behind calls for an overhaul is that the betting industry has been guilty of encouraging excessive spending from those vulnerable people that it is supposed to be protecting. On top of that, the industry has failed to to do enough to stop money laundering and is failing in its social responsibility duties.
The research is there to suggest that as many as half a million people who would class as problem gamblers, so can enough be done to protect them? Given some betting companies even profit from treating gambling addicts, does it suggest that the industry is broken? Should someone addicted to gambling be allowed to lose money at a rate of knots without any recompense?
There needs to be a balance between ‘economic freedom and social protection’, but that’s the same balance that Alan Budd was using as the basis for his review of the gambling industry in 2001 and most would argue that it hasn’t worked. Obviously it was impossible for Budd to foresee the manner in which technology would change the industry, but we know about it now.
The big question is one of time. Budd’s report was published in 2001 after a year’s worth of compiling it. It took another four years for the Gambling Act to be brought in and three more before it was implemented in its entirety. If the next Act takes as long to be made into law it wouldn’t come into effect until 2027.
In the meantime, countless problem gamblers are losing money that they can ill afford to. There is nothing in the laws from the Gambling Commission to say that those losses have to be paid back unless the victims have actively requested to be stopped from gambling and the company in question hasn’t done enough to make that happen.
Many will feel that a change to the way problem gamblers are handled and their losses dealt with should be high on the list of priorities for the government and the Gambling Commission. Giving punters the chance to self-exclude may not be enough to help the most vulnerable moving forward and the UKGC might have to ask companies to be more pro-active in their protection.