James Daley

By James Daley

Online betting is a big business in Britain these days - reputedly now worth over £2bn. Although I don't find much time for it these days, I've been known to indulge in a hand or two of online poker in the past, and occasionally place a horse racing bet online as well.

When you're looking for a new poker or sports betting site, there's no shortage of people willing to shout for your business. When I typed "free bets" into Google today, the first thing that came up was Paddy Power, offering me £250 in free bets if I signed up today. In reality, of course, like most free bet offers, there's a string of terms and conditions attached.

It's standard for free bet offers to be linked to how much you put down. So to get £250 in free bets from Paddy Power, you need to place five £50 bets. But it's not quite as simple as that either. You'll only get your free bets when you've placed multiple other bets of at least £50 with them. In fact, you need to bet at least £1,250 over 25 bets to qualify for your full £250 bonus.

These offers are always designed to sound simple - but the small print usually contains a catch that makes it hard to cash in. Actually, Paddy Power's latest wheeze is by no means one of the worst. On a few occasions, I've signed up to deals where the bonuses are only released after you've played dozens of hands of poker, or which can only be used in certain prescribed ways - which make them much less valuable. Needless to say, the key catches are never spelt out - and you only discover once you've deposited your money and opened the account.

Are gamblers consumers?

Consumer protection in the world of gambling doesn't seem great. The industry's regulator, the Gambling Commission, rightly puts its efforts into tackling any irresponsible attempts to lure people into gambling, and in ensuring that children are kept away from gambling sites. But there clearly isn't a lot of scrutiny around the day to day business of these websites. Presumably, there just aren't enough people in the Gambling Commission to examine every new promotion and offer.

When it comes to retrospective justice, there's not many options open to customers either. If you end up getting a raw deal from your poker site, you can't complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service - or any kind of equivalent. You can write to the Gambling Commission, who make a loose promise to follow it up if they think you've got a point. But in its FAQs, the Commission makes it clear that it almost certainly won't be able to help you get any money back - and even goes so far as to say that you've probably got a gambling problem if you're complaining about losing a large sum of money. It just feels as though there's an unwritten rule which says - if you're cavalier enough to gamble, then you're on your own.

The financial services industry are somewhat complicit in this whole affair. Obviously, to gamble online you need to find a way of piping some money into your account. But if you use your credit card, your bank will treat it like a cash withdrawal and charge you extra fees and interest. Although this may seem fair enough - the problem is that most gaming websites do not stop to warn you of these charges.

It's really easy to get caught out by this. Debit cards tend to be the cheapest way to deposit, but you tend to have to learn this the hard way - typically by checking your credit card statement to discover that you've paid several weeks' of interest and extra charges on the gaming deposits you made.

Losing in peace

All this said, the main way that consumers lose money when it comes to gambling is still by placing losing bets. But that's at least a risk that the customer understands. In the meantime, some more pressure could be put on gambling sites to ensure that their promotions and charges are transparent - so people can be left to lose their money just the way they intended to.