LONDON – When Gregg finally stopped playing in late 2018, he was in financial straits. He’d lost nearly $ 15,000 in a nine-month competition, on top of two outstanding loans of more than $ 70,000 and a mortgage of more than $ 150,000 on his tiny UK home.
Now he’s looking for information on whether his favorite game app Sky Bet knew of his problems and was still trying to tie him up.
Records show that Sky Bet had an information dossier on Gregg. The company, or one of the data providers it hired to collect information about users, had access to bank records, mortgage details, location coordinates, and an intimate portrait of its habits used at slot machines and soccer games.
After he stopped playing, Sky Bet’s data profiling software labeled him a “winning back” customer. He received emails like one promoting the chance to win more than $ 40,000 by playing slots after marketing software advised him that he would likely open it. One predictive model even estimated how much he would be worth if he started playing again: about $ 1,500.
Gregg found out about the behind-the-scenes prosecution after hiring a lawyer and exploiting UK data protection laws that require companies to tell people what personal information they have. He wanted to know if Sky Bet had profiled and targeted him even though he tried to stop gambling.
He shared the documents with the New York Times on condition that his full name not be used, fearing that the details would jeopardize his career and sever relations with family and friends.
Sky Bet did not deny that any of the recordings were authentic. However, the company said it did not have access to certain information, such as banking and mortgage data, that was collected and stored by outside companies.
As gambling apps grow in popularity around the world, the documents show how one of the most popular apps in the gambling industry has adopted some of the internet’s most invasive tracking and profiling techniques. Instead of using data to identify and help troubled gamers like Gregg, information is used to entice gamers.
Gambling apps like Sky Bet make betting as easy as ordering an Uber. Many people consider them an innocent distraction. For a group of gambling addiction experts, privacy activists and industry critics in the UK, which is home to the world’s largest app gambling market, the documents offer a warning to gamblers and regulators in countries like the US where similar services are growing rapidly. More than a dozen states, including New Jersey, Nevada, and Virginia, now allow app-based gambling.
They said the companies behind the apps need more scrutiny and are calling for stricter laws to identify problem gamers and prevent data from being used in devious and predatory ways.
“Anywhere gaming companies operate there should be a real understanding of how data is an integral part of doing business,” said Ravi Naik, a London attorney behind the effort to get Gregg’s data. “If we start looking into the vault as we are here, we can see how the vulnerabilities are designed for the platforms.”
Mr Naik said the data received so far is only part of the puzzle. He has made additional legal petitions in the UK to uncover more details about what gambling companies are doing with the data collected and whether it is being used to customize offers and create other incentives to attract customers, especially the most vulnerable gamblers. A House of Lords report published last year found that 60 percent of the gambling industry’s profits came from 5 percent of customers who were or are at risk of becoming “problem gamblers.”
“We’re trying to create transparency,” said Naik. “It shouldn’t take that much lawyer work to figure out what’s going on.”
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According to market research company Apptopia, Sky Bet was the most popular gambling app in the UK last year, downloading around 140,000 times a month. Formerly controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s UK media company Sky, it is now owned by Flutter Entertainment, which owns a number of casino apps and had approximately $ 7.4 billion in revenue last year.
Nigel Eccles, former managing director of FanDuel, now owned by Flutter and one of the largest gambling apps in the US, said online gambling companies had done extensive data analysis to identify their best customers. Companies see how much people are betting and try to predict what will make them want to spend more. But he said gambling companies are in a delicate position because their best customers may also have gambling problems.
“It’s not that they have access to that data – it’s what they do with it,” said Mr Eccles, who now runs a chat service for sports fans. “If you are using this data in a way that you know, or should know, is harmful to your users, it is a serious problem.”
Mr Naik, who previously helped uncover the misuse of data by the political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, was contacted last year by Gregg for help getting copies of data from Sky Bet and companies profiling users .
The data he and Mr Naik received includes a 34-page breakdown of his financial history from a company called CallCredit, which conducts fraud and identifies checks for Sky Bet. It included information about his bank accounts, debts, and mortgages, and details of monthly payments. A loan default in March 2019 is in bold.
Another company used by Sky Bet, Iovation, provided a table of nearly 19,000 fields of data, including identification numbers for devices Gregg used to fund his gambling account and network information about where they came from.
A document from Signal, a company used by Sky Bet that provides tools to track users online and offline, lists personal characteristics, such as: B. Gregg’s story of playing slots and making soccer his favorite sport.
Most alarming, Mr Naik said, was how software appeared to offer suggestions to lure Gregg back after he stopped playing in late 2018. The data profile listing Gregg as a customer to “win back” included codes that said he was receptive to gambling promotions with Las Vegas. After making more than 2,500 deposits on Sky Bet, he was listed as a “High Value” customer.
“They took his addiction and turned it into code,” said Mr Naik. “He is of great value because he is willing to spend regular and large sums even if it cripples him. They say: keep him coming back – he’s worth a lot more. “
Sky Bet and Flutter Entertainment declined to comment on the record earlier this month after receiving a series of detailed questions about the article. After the article was published on Wednesday, Sky Bet said in a statement that it does not have access to financial information such as bank records and mortgage loans that is collected and held by an outside company, and that it also cannot access certain tracking data .
The company said it used software to identify problematic players based on their gaming frequency and deposits, and limited a person’s ability to gamble if someone was found to be at risk. Players can also self-exclude, the company said.
“Sky Betting & Gaming takes its responsibility for safer gambling extremely seriously,” said the company. “While we run marketing campaigns based on our customers’ preferences and behaviors, we would never try to advertise anyone who may be at risk of game damage.”
TransUnion, a major American credit rating agency that owns CallCredit, Signal and Iovation, stated that it complies with data protection laws and that gambling platforms use their services in a number of ways, including to detect fraud and money laundering.
The UK was a leader in online betting. According to an industry research group, Global Betting and Gaming Consultants, the UK’s gaming apps market was $ 7.3 billion in 2020, almost double the size of the next largest market in Japan. This week, four of the top five free sports apps on the Apple App Store in the UK are gambling. The companies own and sponsor soccer teams and dominate advertising at sporting events on television.
The country is at the center of the global debate about regulating the new generation of betting apps. The government has launched a review of gambling laws that will include considering new data usage rules and affordability testing, according to the agency conducting the review.
Legislators should enact new regulations that will allow companies to use data to identify problem gamblers but limit its use for marketing and other sales goals, said James Noyes, a senior fellow at the Social Market Foundation, a London think tank.
“They recognize your pattern of play, your likes, dislikes, spending tendencies and the risk involved,” said Noyes. “It picks up information about you and then turns it back on you.”