New additional customer interaction guidance for UK licensed remote gambling operators

The Gambling Commission has today published additional formal customer interaction guidance for remote operators during the COVID-19 outbreak, including the need for affordability checks, prevention of reverse withdrawals and restrictions on bonus offers.

The Commission states that: “Online operators will be expected to make changes to act on this guidance as soon as possible”, adding that it will bring forward plans to consult on whether further targeted player protection measures are required on a permanent basis”. 

The Commission describes this as “additional guidance” because, pursuant to LCCP Social Responsibility Code provision 4.4.1(2), UK-licensed remote gambling operators must already take into account the Commission’s existing formal customer interaction guidance.

The additional guidance (that you can download below) reads as follows:

Customer interaction – Additional formal guidance for remote operators during COVID-19 outbreak

Social responsibility code provision 3.4.1 (From 31 October 2019) Customer interaction

All licences, except non-remote lottery, gaming machine technical, gambling software and host licences.

1. Licensees must interact with customers in a way which minimises the risk of customers experiencing harms associated with gambling. This must include:

  • identifying customers who may be at risk of or experiencing harms associated with gambling.
  • interacting with customers who may be at risk of or experiencing harms associated with gambling.
  • understanding the impact of the interaction on the customer, and the effectiveness of the Licensee’s actions and approach.

2. Licensees must take into account the Commission’s guidance on customer interaction. This guidance is issued further to the formal customer interaction guidance for remote operators of July 2019.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdown, licensees should ensure they have the following measures implemented into their customer interaction framework for the purposes of preventing gambling related harm:

a)       Reviews of all thresholds and triggers used to track vulnerability to ensure that they reflect  changed financial circumstances that many consumers will be experiencing. An emphasis should be placed on those thresholds and triggers being proactively reset on a precautionary basis to ensure customers with emerging vulnerability, such as increased time spent at play or increased spend can be identified

b)      Specifically, review your time indicators to capture play in excess of 1 hour as this is a proxy for potential harm.

c)       Set additional or modify existing thresholds and triggers which are specific to new customers reflecting an operator’s lack of knowledge of that individual’s play and spend patterns.

d)      Implement processes that ensure the continual monitoring of your customer base, identifying customers whose patterns of play, spend or behaviours have changed in the last few weeks.

e)      Conduct affordability assessments for individuals picked up by existing or new thresholds and triggers which indicate consumers experiencing harm. Consider limiting or blocking further play until the checks have been concluded and supporting evidence obtained.

f)        Prevent reverse withdrawal options for customers until further notice.

g)       Stop bonus offers or promotions to customers displaying indicators of harm

Knowing and identifying your customers at risk of or experiencing harm and acting early and quickly could help stop or prevent the harm worsening.

These measures will be kept under periodic review by the Commission and may be revised in response to changes in circumstance.

The additional guidance will be welcomed by those who have feared heightened problem gambling risks during the current lockdown, including parliamentarians (for example, DCMS Minister Nigel Huddleston and the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee) and in the media. However, others will question whether a real need exists for such further measures as are set out in the additional guidance, bearing in mind that the Commission itself acknowledges that there is “no evidence to suggest an increase in problem gambling”. 

However, the Commission’s reasoning appears instead to be based on new research findings that, overall:

  • whilst fewer consumers are gambling, some existing gamblers are trying new products (some of which have faster play cycles) – as illustrated in the below infographic,
  • whilst gamblers are playing products at the same rate or less, a majority of those who have participated in 3 or more gambling activities in the last 4 weeks are spending more time or money, and
  • the number of gambling sessions over an hour in length are increasing (having risen by 23% compared with the same period last year).

More information in the above respects (including access to the above-mentioned research findings) is set out on the Commission’s webpage entitled “Covid 19 and its impact on gambling – what we know so far” (which you can also download below).

Commenting on this additional guidance (and also downloadable below), the Gambling Commission states as follows on its website under the heading “Gambling Commission instructs tighter measures to protect consumers during lockdown”:

The Gambling Commission has today issued new guidance for online operators. It ensures that consumers are further protected following the publication of new evidence that shows some gamblers maybe at greater risk of harm during lockdown. Included in the guidance is the need for affordability checks, prevention of reverse withdrawals and restrictions on bonus offers. 

The new guidance follows the Commission publishing data showing the impact that Covid-19 is having on consumers and the industry so far. Collected through the gambling industry and also through YouGov surveys this data shows that during lockdown gambling participation is down overall. This reflects the closure of land based venues and the cancellation of sporting events, with only a small number of people starting to gamble for the first time.  

However, while there is no evidence to suggest an increase in problem gambling, the shift in the market as a result of Covid-19 evidence shows an increase in the use of certain gambling products such as online slots, poker, casino gaming and virtual sports.  

The majority of those gambling indicate that they have not increased the time or money they have spent, two thirds (64%) of more engaged gamblers [1] reported that they have increased the time or money that they are spending on at least one online gambling activity including National Lottery products.[2]

The data also shows that in terms of time spent gambling, while overall session length has decreased, there has been an increase in the number of sessions that are played for over an hour 

The Commission has reviewed its current guidance in light of the risks that some players may be experiencing harm while in lockdown, and online operators must now take account of the Commission’s additional guidance, which makes clear they should: 

  • Prevent reverse withdrawal options for customers until further notice [3]
  • Cease to offer bonuses or promotions to all customers who are displaying indicators of harm
  • Interact with customers who have been playing for an hour in a single session of play
  • Review thresholds and triggers for new customers to reflect the operator’s lack of knowledge of that individual’s play and spend patterns
  • Conduct affordability assessments for individuals picked up by existing or new thresholds and triggers which indicate consumers experiencing harm – limiting or blocking further play until those checks have been concluded and supporting evidence obtained, and;
  • Implement processes that ensure the continual monitoring of their customer base – identifying patterns of play, spend or behaviours have changed in recent weeks.

Online operators will be expected to make changes to act on this guidance as soon as possible. The Commission will bring forward plans to consult on whether further targeted player protection measures are required on a permanent basis.  

Gambling Commission chief executive Neil McArthur said: 

“Operators must use the data they hold to protect their customers and now, more than ever, it’s vital that online operators really know their customers by monitoring how long they are playing for and understanding how financial uncertainty is impacting them and what they can afford to gamble with.  To ensure operators do that, we are strengthening our guidance and expect operators to take account of that to prevent bonus offers or inducements being offered to customers who are showing any sign of harm‘’  

Work was already underway to address many of these issues but this means we will now accelerate this work due to the unique situation that many consumers will find themselves in during lockdown.    

‘’We will continue to monitor and publish the data that we are collecting and we will take further measures if required. We are monitoring online operators closely and if we see irresponsible behaviour we will step in immediately, suspending licences if we need to.”   

Minister for Sports, Tourism and Heritage Nigel Huddleston said: 

“It is vital that people are protected from the threat of gambling related harm and I welcome these latest steps from the Gambling Commission. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and will not hesitate to take further action if required.”

Later this month the Commission will be opening a consultation which will propose strengthened measures around ethical product design, including reverse withdrawals and VIP Inducements. 

Following the announcement of the lockdown and social distancing measures on 23 March, Mr McArthur also wrote to online operators to remind them of their responsibilities to protect consumers. 

Nigel Huddleston MP wrote to gambling operators in April to remind them of their responsibilities during Covid-19, and urged them to give more prominence to safer gambling messages.  

Read the Commission’s full report on Covid-19 related data. The data was taken from YouGov’s Covid-19 tracker, a weekly online survey of around 2,000 adults in Great Britain and from submissions of the biggest operators, covering approximately 80% of the online gambling market (noting that it may include some duplication of customer numbers where it is not possible to identify unique customers).

Read the full updated guidance to operators on customer interaction during Covid-19

Read more about Covid 19 and its impact on gambling.

To help give a clear and more rounded picture of current gambling behaviours, we have taken data from gambling operators.

Read more about the risks arising from Covid-19 and our response.

The National Lottery already has similar protections in place but is monitoring the impact of Covid-19 on player behaviour and updating the Gambling Commission regularly on its approach.

In April the Gambling Commission directed £9m to boost resilience of gambling harm treatment services during Covid-19.

Notes to Editors:  

  1. *An engaged gambler is someone that has gambled on three or more products in the last week. Of those who gambled in the last four weeks (but not only for the first time), 8% are engaged gamblers (i.e. have gambled on three or more products).
  2. Data on increased time/money spent includes playing National Lottery products.
  3. Most online operators offer consumers the facility to reverse a request to withdraw funds in their gambling account. Consumers can use this facility to change their decision to end gambling, and either extend their session without taking a break or spend more than they originally intended. The Commission, supported by academic research, lived experience and expert advice, already considers the use of reverse withdrawals as a flag for potential gambling harms.

Reported changes in time and money spent on online gambling products do not reflect the time and money people were spending prior to lockdown in land-based venues so we do not know what has happened to these individuals’ overall gambling expenditure.

The Gambling Commission’s above-mentioned webpage entitled “Risks arising from Covid-19 and our response” (that you can also download below):

  • summarises changes in gambling-related harm risks to consumers that result from changes observed in data collected from “operators and a wide range of other sources” and
  • confirms that the Commission will “take forward work to consult on specific measures around reverse withdrawals, inducements and time of play as permanent consumer protections”.

In relation to those three items it states as follows:

Inducements to Gamble

Research suggests that inducements play a role in impulsive decisions. In the Populus online tracker, free bets and bonuses are the most often cited reason for prompted spend on gambling. We found that 50% of problem gamblers (according to the PGSI) were prompted to spend money on gambling when prompted with a free bet or a bonus, compared with 13% of non-problem gamblers.

Therefore, while our data shows the increased risk remains, we want operators to stop providing inducements for those players that that are showing signs of harm.

Reverse withdrawal functionality

Most online operators offer consumers the facility to reverse a request to withdraw funds in their gambling account. Consumers can use this facility to change their decision to end gambling, and either extend their session without taking a break or spend more than they originally intended. The Commission, supported by academic research, lived experience and expert advice, already considers the use of reverse withdrawals as a flag for potential gambling harms.

We know that there has been a reduction in the use of this facility by approximately 7% compared with March 2019. This could be because there has been a reduction in gambling overall and a small number of larger operators have voluntarily withdrawn the facility. However, we also know that consumers who do use the facility, do so on average 4.7 times per month. Therefore, it is likely to be contributing to the heightened risks of more intensive play for engaged gamblers.

Given this, we are accelerating our plans to take action in this area. We want to remove the ability for consumers to reverse a withdrawal. This would help support consumer decisions for safer gambling and in some cases limit the length of time a player can continue without taking a break.

Controls on session length

Introducing controls on the length of time players can play in a session would limit the time they could play with one operator without a break. However, it is easy for consumers to switch to another operator once their time limit has been reached. Consequently, we think that customer interactions would be a more effective way of mitigating the harm from longer sessions.

Operators should already be conducting effective interactions with players at appropriate times, but we want to make sure that they now factor in sessions longer than an hour.

UPDATE: GVC was quick to welcome the additional guidance from the Gambling Commission, stating in a press release (that you can also download below): “while it is also pleasing that the Commission has found no evidence to-date of any increase in problem gambling in the lockdown period, GVC strongly endorses the additional focus on protecting customers”.