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William Hill has been fined a record £19 million for breaches of the strict rules around gambling that are intended to protect consumers.
The breaches, described as “widespread and alarming” failures on social responsibility and anti-money-laundering regulations, led to an unprecedented penalty announced at the end of March by the UK’s Gambling Commission.
The news made the whole sector sit up and take notice, particularly as it came just weeks before the publication of a whitepaper which will herald new rules on responsibility around betting.
The company admitted a string of transgressions of existing consumer protection rules, including allowing some customers to lose tens of thousands of pounds within minutes of opening an account.
Some of the most extreme malpractice examples took place during Covid-19 lockdowns, when the Commission, which regulates the gaming industry, had specifically warned bookmakers that the public, isolated and bored as they were, were particularly vulnerable to developing problems around gambling.
Admittedly it’s a relatively small amount compared to turnover: the 888 Group, which owns William Hill, reported £1.85 billion in revenue for the year up to the end of December. But despite what some anti-gambling lobbyists might like people to believe – that these kinds of fines are a price that unscrupulous companies are willing to pay to be able to exploit the public – this is very much not true. WIlliam Hill’s breaches were almost certainly down to systemic failures rather than any deliberate and therefore cynical attempt to ignore the rules.
How can we be sure? Well firstly take note that the regulator said it had seriously considered suspending William Hill’s licence – something it has never done before – and only decided against this when the company worked rapidly to make changes. When they’re turning over nearly £2 billion a year, would they really want to risk being shut down?
Secondly the fines are much, much bigger than any amount they made by rule breaches.
And finally there’s the reputational damage to the William Hill brand to consider: this story was leading the BBC news on the day it came out, making it a huge PR own goal.
Put simply, the company didn’t have systems in place that would let it know in sufficient detail who was using their services: their insight into the identity of and issues around their customers just wasn’t up to scratch.
Had they been on top of this they could and should have been able to identify issues around these problem accounts at the point of onboarding.
Industry research shows that 89% of gambling and gaming transactions are carried out on a mobile device. That means that the key to being able to spot problem customers – those who have previously self-certified as having issues, for example – lies in their phone numbers. Because their data history and their live status tell a very detailed story.
Is the person who has registered with you and asking to place a bet really who they say they are? Are they really using the telephone number they say they’re using?
When you’re dealing with problem gamblers the history of their phone usage is very likely the single verifiable piece of information in the picture they present.
These are the sorts of checks that companies like ours are able to perform in a fraction of a second to a very high degree of accuracy. And failing to set up to ensure these checks are made as a matter of routine has cost William Hill £19 million.
Regulators have been more and more steely on these issues in recent years – and the penalties for any breaches have been getting more severe: the previous record fine in the field, for example, had only been set last August when Entain, the parent company of Ladbrokes and Coral, was fined £17 million for a similar series of failures.
When that gambling whitepaper comes out – which could be any day now – and in all likelihood sets out even tougher consumer protection rules for his sector, this function will only become even more critical.
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