Gambling and betting sites licensed in the UK have been warned that it’s time to clean up the terms and conditions attached to their bonus offers. On Wednesday, the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) announced that a joint investigation with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) found multiple problems with the way operators structure bonus offers and how those offers are explained.
In the announcement, the UKGC said it is “time to take action on unfair terms” related to gambling bonuses. The UKGC identified a number of specific issues that it considers unfair and likely in violation of consumer protection law:
- Bonus terms that prohibit customers from withdrawing their own deposit balances and any winnings obtained by wagering deposited money
- Confusing terms that make it difficult or impossible to clearly distinguish between whether deposited money or bonus money is about to bet wagered, and therefore which terms are applicable to those wagers
- Bonus wagering requirements that are laden with restrictions such as maximum bet sizes and weighting different games differently in how they contribute to meeting wagering requirements. Furthermore, those restrictions often have serious consequences for consumers such as confiscation of deposits and winnings
- Significant bonus conditions that are not provided to gamblers in a clear, timely, transparent, non-misleading and prominent manner
- Operators not honouring free bets even after customers have apparently met the conditions required to claim those free bets
- Terms and conditions that require consent for operators to use customer’s private information (such as their name) for promotional purposes
This looks like a positive development even if it does result in gambling sites offering bonuses that appear less valuable on the surface. The issues noted by the CMA have long been among the most annoying and confusing terms attached the bonus offers. All too often, a bonus that appears generous at first is rendered significantly less valuable once all the terms and conditions are applied.
Just one of many examples of unfair and ambiguous terms and conditions include many sites’ use of vague restrictions on how customers may play while clearing a bonus. For instance, many betting sites state that players’ bonuses and unspent deposited funds may confiscated for “bonus abuse,” without clearly describing what bonus abuse even means.
The CMA was given a lead role in the investigation at the behest of the UKGC due to the CMA’s expertise in dealing with unfair terms in commerce. The CMA then went about investigating the issue by reviewing gambling websites, reading through the terms and conditions of bonus offers, monitoring social media and reviewing complaints submitted by players.
CMA Project Director George Lusty presented the findings in a speech given at the Gambling Commission’s Raising Standards Conference 2017 on 21 November. In the speech, Lusty said the CMA found “a very large number of concerns with promotional terms and conditions.”
Lusty also said that of particular concern were terms and conditions that potential extend to restricting customers from withdrawing winnings and deposits. That concern ended up becoming the particular focus of the investigation.
Preliminary Demands of Operators
In his speech on Tuesday, George Lusty outlined the various issues found by the investigation and presented recommended actions operators should take. The UK Gambling Commission and Competitions and Markets Authority have said they will consider further enforcement should these issues not be properly addressed.
In the meantime, here are the CMA’s preliminary recommendations for each category of issue found by the investigation.
1. Lack of transparency of significant promotion restrictions
- Explain all significant terms and conditions in a clear, timely, intelligible, unambiguous, transparent, non-misleading and prominent manner
- Ensure all restrictions are presented before gamblers sign up and that all conditions are accessible within a single click
2. Restrictions on withdrawing deposit winnings
- Stop offering promotions that include a restriction on withdrawing winnings obtained by wagering the customer’s own deposit
- Clearly explain that customer have the right to withdraw winnings associated with their own deposits
- Demonstrate clearly the difference between funds that are subject to restrictions and funds that are not
3. Restrictions on withdrawing unused deposit money
- Do not impose restrictions on the withdrawal of unspent deposited funds
- Cleary explain that customers have the right to withdraw unspent deposited funds
4. Fairness and transparency of play restrictions
- Play restrictions should not result in consequences that end in players’ deposits or winnings from their deposits being confiscated, except where operators are able to proactively prevent players from breaching play restrictions. For example, if bets placed on blackjack result in confiscation, players should be prevented from accessing blackjack.
- Clearly define prohibited patterns of play (i.e. “bonus abuse”) with no discretion left to operators after the event
5. Withdrawing free bets or reducing their value
- Operators must honour the deals they make with customers regarding free bets
- Operators must not reduce or restrict free bets after customers have met some or all of the conditions
6. Compulsory publicity
- Operators must not force customers to participate in publicity activities as a condition for receiving promotional offers
This is not the first time operators have been put on notice regarding confusing and/or predatory bonus terms. Numerous UK betting sites have been fined or reprimanded for issues related to their bonus offers over the past year, and now UK regulators have made it clear: operators are expected to take proactive action to ensure their bonuses are transparent, unambiguous and fair.