United Kingdom's Competition and Markets Authority

United Kingdom’s CMA Continuing Investigations Into Unfair Withdrawal Impedence

The United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority, or CMA, is continuing its investigation into UK-facing online operators who place roadblocks in the path of customers seeking to withdrawal all or part of their online bankrolls. In recent days, the CMA has announced that it has sent notifications to “several” unnamed operators regarding the continuation of such practices.

Competition & Markets Authority LogoJust a month ago, the CMA reached “voluntary” agreements with three major UK-facing firms over such practices. Those three firms — William Hill, Ladbrokes, and TitanBet corporate parent PT Entertainment Group — each signed seven-page undertakings drafted by the CMA committing themselves to reform in several marketing and promotional areas. Those specifically include the unfair withdrawal practices, often connected to “sticky” promotions and other hard-to-find legal fine print.

This time around, many other firms are likely facing the CMA’s potential wrath. It’s something of a game of chicken: The CMA lacks the legal authority to bring complaints into the UK’s court system, but it is the starting point in the United Kingdom for all such consumer-protection matters. The CMA does, however, have the power to refer all such investigations to the UK Gambling Commission for possible prosecution, where penalties can involve stiff fines and even the loss of a company’s license. Yet has happened all around the globe, a few companies seek to scrape every last dollar from a questionable marketing concept, right up to the last moment when a harsher action is imminent.

That seems to be what’s in play here for the unnamed companies. The CMA’s semi-anonymous letter represents a last chance for these operators to correct the deceptive practices.

The CMA and the UKGC have conducted their joint crackdown against some company’s unfair and deceptive marketing practices for nearly a half, and counting. The investigation was spurred by a healthy rise in consumer complaints and gambling-market research showing eroding confidence in the sector. Per the CMA, these are the important points to date in the effort:

Date / Action

  • 21 October 2016 — Investigation launched;
  • 23 June 2017 — Update on investigation and enforcement cases opened;
  • 1 February 2018 — Next investigation update [This was the announcement of the undertakings committed to by Ladbrokes, William Hill and the TitanBet brands];
  • 1 March 2018 — Enforcement action launched.

Though Bill Hill, Laddies and TitanBet suffered some bad press a month ago, they likely emerged from this portion of the investigation with the minimum of brand damage. Once the other companies being investigated are named (and that seems inevitable), their turn under the cold spotlight also comes. That’ll be even worse if they drag their corporate heels to the point where the UKGC is compelled to step in and begin any legal enforcement actions.

Here’s the brief notice offered on the CMA’s website, where they highlight the specific areas where the offending but still-anonymous firms continue to allegedly violate the UK’s consumer-protection codes:

1 March 2018: The CMA has launched enforcement action against a number of online gambling firms in respect of practices that may place unfair obstacles in the way of people withdrawing their money (whether as part of a promotion or not).

Issues of particular concern that we have raised include:

  • Daily, weekly or monthly limits on withdrawing funds that appear unreasonably low;
  • Potentially arbitrary short deadlines on the time customers have to verify their identity as a condition of withdrawing funds, sometimes providing for forfeiture of consumer’s funds if missed; and
  • Dormancy terms that allow firms to confiscate funds or impose apparently excessive charges after a certain period of inactivity.

We will update our case page on a regular basis as the investigation progresses.

Over at the UKGC, where the enforcement hammer awaits the call to strike, Programme Director Ian Angus offered this: “We support the CMA’s investigation – gambling firms should not be placing unreasonable restrictions on when and how consumers can withdraw money from their online gambling accounts. While the CMA continues its enquiry, we expect all online operators to look closely at the terms and practices they have in place and consider if they are fair on their customers.”

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