Unfair Bonus Terms: What Operators & Players Need to Know
by Dale Shelabarger
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has announced they will enforce important changes into how online gambling operators frame their bonuses and promotions. The government body opened an investigation in October 2016, after receiving over 1,000 complaints from consumers who felt that bonus and promotion terms were unfair. In June 2017, the CMA announced they would be taking enforcement action and this month, they announced that three operators (Ladbrokes, William Hill, and PT Entertainment) had “formally committed” to improving their promotional terms. Operators who do not do the same by next month, will face enforcement action.
The CMA’s announcement, backed by the UK Gambling Commission, will have a seismic impact on the industry. In this article, we’ll recap the background behind the changes, what exactly these changes are and what are the next steps for operators to make sure they are 100% compliant. Additionally, we’ll provide a checklist for consumers so that they know what to look out for, and when they are being treated unfairly.
Online Gambling Bonus Terms against the Law?
The CMA points to two specific consumer laws that they believe are being contravened by unfair casino operator practices; Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs) and the Consumer Rights Act 2015 (CRA).
The first refers to unfair commercial practices, including misleading acts or active omissions. The second refers to contract terms; they must be fair, understandable, and totally transparent.
This is the question that George Lusty of the CMA, back when he laid out their intentions to rule on this thorny issue; “Does a (promotional) term create a significant imbalance, contrary to the requirements of good faith, to the detriment of consumers?”
The 3 major tenets of the CMA’s enforcement action
Players shouldn’t be required to play multiple times before they can withdraw their own money.
Gambling firms must ensure that any restrictions on gameplay are made clear to players and cannot rely on vague terms to confiscate players’ money.
Gambling firms must not oblige players to take part in publicity.
What does this mean for operators?
To make it easy, the CMA have drawn up simple steps for how operators should proceed to stay in line with the new announcement.
Cast a critical eye frequently over their terms and condition to make sure they are fair and 100% in line with consumer law.
Ensure that terms and conditions are clearly communicated to the consumer with the intention of educating them, rather than obfuscating.
Make sure the customer has all the pertinent information required to make an informed decision about whether or not a promotion is correct for them.
Ensure that customers have the leeway to opt out of promotions at any point, even once they have started. Crucially, this means that customers must be allowed to withdraw their remaining deposit as well as any winning derived from that deposit.
The final operator do – make sure there is a clear distinction between the bonus funds, and the real money that a player first deposited with.
On the other hand, operators must ensure that they are no longer doing the following.
If offering customers a “free bet” promotion, do not change the offer once activated.
Do not withhold a customer’s own money from them – this refers to deposits and winnings that derive from real money deposits.
Do not apply complicated, obfuscating, hindering and generally unfair restrictions to promotions
Finally, operators cannot use customer information in promoting their website automatically. Special permission must be sought.
Operators must bring themselves in line by March 2018 or they will be subject to enforcement action from the CMA.
What does this mean for consumers?
Educating the customer in order to empower them is a crucial element in the sustainability of a healthy and ethical industry. Of course, online gambling comes with risks. So, while the consumer must understand the possibilities of losing money while gambling, the consumer can also expect to be treated fairly and legally, within the bounds of consumer law.
The CMA have created a short YouTube video to help consumers know what to look out for, and when they are getting, as the president of the United States might say, a bad deal.
Checklist for Online Gamblers
The terms and conditions of any given promotion must be readily offered, clearly communicated and without time pressure that could rush your decision. For example, the most important terms should be visible under an offer (like wagering requirements, minimum deposit etc.), and complete terms and conditions should never be further than one click away.
A consumer should have all the information available to them, and know what to expect, in order to make an informed decision about whether the deal is right for them or not.
If a customer has deposited their own real money towards a promotion, they ought to be free to withdraw that, even if they decide to forfeit the promotion.
Online casinos, bingo and betting sites have an obligation to separate real funds from bonus funds. The CMA has made it clear that only bonus funds can be restricted in terms of withdrawing, but even that must be communicated in a clear and effective way.
Another point of contention from the CMA has been operators using real players’ information to publicise their site. The CMA repeats; you do not and should not have to take part in this!
Finally, as we mentioned in the operator section, a site cannot offer you a free bet and then alter it once you’ve begun.
If you believe you’ve had an unfair experience, what should you do?
Contact the online casino or bingo site’s customer support team. These can be found in our casino reviews, or on the websites themselves.
If this hasn’t got you very far, and you still think the site is unfairly treating you, then contact a casino’s ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) firm. An online gambling site should have the details of their ADR firm on the website. As per the gambling commission website, approved ADR providers in the gambling sector include eCOGRA, IBAS, ProMediate & ADR Group.
If this still has not resolved the issue, then you can contact the UK Gambling Commission, Citizens Advice, or pursue your own legal counsel.
What’s Next for the Online Gaming Industry?
This will not be the end of the CMA’s involvement in the industry. The government body will continue to look at other areas in which they have received consumer complaints. These complaints are not necessarily related to promotional terms. Rather, the CMA have promised next to look into terms that compel players to withdraw their legitimate real money funds over lengthy periods of time. Likewise, the CMA will also look into the confiscation of legitimate funds held in a player’s account if they haven’t been active for a certain period of time.
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