Millions of people in the UK gamble at brick and mortar casinos, and their favourite online casino using a computer or mobile every year, but a small percentage of them are problem gamblers. These are people for whom it is almost impossible to gamble in moderation, and who typically end up gambling - and losing - more than they can afford to the detriment of themselves and their families.
Unfortunately there is no 'quick fix' for problem gambling as anyone over the legal gambling age in a country or territory where land and remote gambling is legal and regulated (like the UK) has the right to gamble if they so choose. Plus, few people - if any - can predict if they'll develop a gambling problem before they play their first slot, video poker or table game.
As a way to combat problem gambling, however, most reputable land and internet gambling groups have implemented comprehensive self-exclusion programmes that are open to any and all gamblers. These let players with (or who may be developing) a gambling problem to approach a casino and ask that they be blocked or disallowed from playing their games.
For the most part UK self-exclusion programmes have proven to be successful, particularly amongst online gamblers motivated to stop gambling. However, there are cases where players have been seemingly let down or misled by casinos. In this article we look at self-exclusion practices in the UK, where they fall down and what can be done to improve them.
By law, UK-licensed operators are obliged to be part of a multi-operaor self-exclsuion scheme, and in particular GAMSTOP for online operators. More on GAMSTOP later.
What is a Self-Exclusion Programme?
A self-exclusion programme is a platform offered by a casino or casino group where a player can volunteer to exclude themselves from the games offered by a casino or group of casinos (owned and operated by the same company). The decision to self-exclude is solely that of the player, and the minimum self-exclusion period is typically no less than 6 months.
Once a player has signed a self-exclusion agreement with a casino, they may not play any of its games- even if they change their minds and would like to cancel the agreement - for the duration of their agreement. Casinos take these agreements extremely seriously and some have even been known to press charges against players who have chosen to break them.
The responsibility ultimately lies with the player who requested the self-exclusion to ensure they stay away from a land casino or do not try to login to an online casino (or any of its sister casino sites) that they've been excluded from. It's important to remember that even though a player has to apply for a self-exclusion period, the casino may well extend it.
Players who avoid a casino and its games for the duration of their self-exclusion will usually be re-admitted. In most cases, however, they must contact the online casino to cancel the agreement even if expired, or it will stay in place indefinitely. If a player is caught trying to play games during their self-exclusion, their exclusion may be extended permanently.
It is important to understand the difference between a self-exclusion and an outright ban or refusal entry. With the former, the player approaches a casino and asks to be prevented from playing its games, while the latter is an order issued by a casino against a player for contravening its own rules and regulations and/or the gambling laws of the land.
In the case of a family member or a partner who seeks to initiate a self-exclusion order on behalf of a loved one with a gambling problem, they will need to obtain a court order that directs a particular casino or group of casinos to implement the self-exclusion. Failing that, there is little they can do to stop a casino from granting admission to their loved one.
When Self-Exclusion Programmes Go Bad
A problem that can arise with self-exclusion programmes, especially in an online gambling context, is when a player is excluded from a casino and 'unknowingly' signs up, deposits and plays at a sister site. Once casino groups find out that a player is self-excluded from a sister site, they typically remove their winnings and may even refuse to refund their deposits.
And this is where self-exclusion programmes can become a source of conflict. In the above scenario a player can argue that they signed a self-exclusion agreement with a particular casino (which they've stayed away from), so why can't they play at any other casinos they choose, and why must their casino balances and/or winnings be forfeited to the casino?
Disgruntled players often contend that, they were unaware their self-exclusion agreements applied to all casinos owned by a particular gaming groups (because they failed to read the agreement fine print prior to signing it or they were not sufficiently informed by the casino), and that their winnings and possibly their deposits are kept by the casino and not returned.
Disgruntled Player Takes Online Casino to Court
There are many online gambling forums full of complaints from players who feel they've been treated unfairly by some online casinos as a result of self-exclusion agreements they signed. For instance, in 2016 a player's self-exclusion problems with leading UK online iGaming firm EveryMatrix Ltd was well publicised in the UK online gambling industry.
The player concerned complained that he signed up and deposited with an online casino called Dragonara (after receiving a promotional email from them) where he won £625. When he tried to cash out his winnings they were confiscated, while his original deposit was returned to him. The reason given was that he had violated a self-exclusion agreement.
Confused because he had never signed a self-exclusion agreement with Dragonara Casino, the player did some digging and discovered that Dragonara was a sister site of another casino he did have a self-exclusion agreement with. While EveryMatrix contended that the player's self-exclusion extended to all of its casinos, the player countered that nowhere in Dragonara's terms and conditions was its association with the EveryMatrix mentioned.
In addition, he wanted to know why Dragonara Casino allowed him to register, make a deposit and play in the first place. He also asked why an operator with so many casinos under its belt didn't have the necessary systems in place to cross check player information to prevent incidents like this from happening, which would seem a logical thing to do.
EveryMatrix reportedly told the player that it was virtually impossible to verify all newly registering players. Unsatisfied with their response and to seek financial retribution, the player brought the matter before a UK county court which ruled in his favour. The judge ordered the casino to pay the player the full £625 in addition to all of his legal fees.
Casino and Player Conduct in Question
This judgment raised many questions about the conduct of online casino groups as well as players. For instance, did the casino group intentionally keep its terms and conditions vague or misleading so it could use the associated self-excluded agreements as an excuse not to pay out a certain segment of players i.e. problem gamblers, or was it a genuine oversight?
According to many UK gamblers who followed this case, this was not an isolated incident as many reported coming across casinos with 'vague' T&Cs that have allowed them to sign up even though they are self-excluded from an associated casino. They can deposit and play, but as soon as they try to withdraw, they're found to be in violation of the casino's policy.
The result is that they lose their winnings and are not refunded their initial deposits.
In response, many UK casinos say that as soon as they identify a player with a self-exclusion agreement in place, they comply with the directive of the UK Gambling Commission. This specifies that they should void the player's bets, they can retain their winnings but refund their deposits. Unfortunately not all UK online casinos seem to be practicing this.
Another question the judgment raised is what a problem gambler (responsible gamblers have no use for self-exclusion agreements) was doing registering at another online casino? The answer to this question may lie in the player being a 'problem gambler,' or in something a little more sinister as not all problem gamblers (or regular gamblers) are honest.
The reality is that in the UK there will always be casinos that choose to 'fly a little too close to the wind,' just as there are players who try to trick or mislead casinos. The solution would seem to be a straight forward one - to implement a self-exclusion programme on a national level that is applicable across any and all casino and other gambling facilities and sites.
With this in mind, in August 2016 The Remote Gambling Association (RGA), a London & Brussels -based remote gambling association committed to promoting regulated and responsible online gambling practices around the world launched a comprehensive study for the development of a national online self-exclusion scheme (NOSE) in the UK.
It's being undertaken in association with such leading UK gaming stakeholders as GamCare, GambleAware and the UK Gambling Commission.
UK Gambling Commission Endorses GAMSTOP
In June 2017, UK Gambling Commission publically endorsed an online multi-operator self-exclusion scheme that will forthwith be known as GAMSTOP which is expected to go live sometime in 2018. Spearheaded and run by the RGA, GAMSTOP is designed to combat problem gambling in the UK and improve the overall protection of gambling fans.
A key component of GAMSTOP will include stringent identity checks during the online casino registration process to ensure player information is registered correctly to help identify and stop problem gamblers from feeding their addiction. GAMSTOP is also designed to improve player protection levels by being a central and holistic self-exclusion programme.
Design to meet the objectives of the UK Gambling Commission's Licence Conditions and Codes of Practice, GAMSTOP will give problem gamblers a central point (the GAMSTOP website) where they can self-exclude themselves from all licensed land, online and mobile casinos in the UK. It will also provide access to specialist advice and support services.
Said RGA Director of Social Responsibility, Fiona Palmer, 'We are at a very exciting stage in the development of GAMSTOP. With the branding now established and process design well advanced, the focus in the coming months will be on technology integration and industry communication. We are therefore confident that we will deliver self-exclusion on the truly national scale needed to assist consumers who need this kind of help to manage their gambling.'
GAMSTOP should be good news for problem gamblers and land and online gambling operations alike, as it will help eliminate if not cut down on casino / player self-exclusion disputes.
See the full text of the GAMSTOP license conditions here.