Opinion

From Free Candy to Friendly Cartoons, Here’s How Online Casinos Target Our Kids

In this era of partisanship, it is important to pay particular attention to areas of agreement among Americans on both sides of the aisle and independents. One such issue is the rising concern regarding social media giants. From alarming data breaches to the ease with which bad actors can “weaponize platforms and algorithms”; the apparent inability by some social media companies to sufficiently protect personal information continues to provide the public ample reason to remain concerned by the potential consequences.

The many hazards driving Americans’ mistrust of social media are not limited to Silicon Valley’s products. Another, largely unregulated space with a widening presence on the web shares many of the same foregoing flaws: online gambling. And the risks to American families may be even greater.

One of the iGaming industry’s most recent security-breach scandals mirrors what we’ve seen on social media platforms with one important distinction: payment card information. Without diminishing the very dangerous details of the latest Facebook hack – through which “attackers could have gained access to apps like Spotify, Instagram and hundreds of others” – it is critically important for Americans to consider the singular threat posed by breaches regarding payment information like credit cards or bank accounts.

But the threat posed by this platform extends beyond the danger to individual online poker players; to be sure, the sector’s susceptibilities put at risk the public at large.

Leading authorities such as the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, for instance, have warned that “online gambling sites and other similar entities have made it easier to launder money on the internet than it was in the past – a practice that terrorist groups have taken advantage of in recent years.” The examples and warning signs are numerous:

— Younis Tsouli – who may be the “best known virtual terrorist” – “laundered money through a number of online gambling sites, such as absolutepoker.com and paradisepoker.com, using…stolen credit card information,” and “conducted hundreds of transactions at 43 different websites in total.”

— The FBI warned in its 2013 letter to Congress that, “online casinos are vulnerable to a wide array of criminal schemes” and “may provide more opportunities for criminals to launder illicit proceeds with increased anonymity.”

— In 2016, South Korea’s Defense Security Command announced that North Korea’s army of hackers collect $866 million annually from sources like online gambling websites.

— The following year, a Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice report also concluded that “illegal online gambling is highly vulnerable for terrorist financing.”

— Earlier this summer, the UK Gambling Commission sanctioned one of the largest iGaming operators for a “litany of transgressions,” including a failure to prevent money laundering.

Accordingly, amid all of the attention in Washington regarding efforts among foreign and criminal entities to weaponize social media, lawmakers must also remain clear-eyed about the ability of these actors to also exploit iGaming platforms for nefarious purposes.

While such illegal activity by criminals is deeply concerning to me as a former member of the U.S. Senate, the immoral behavior of licensed online casinos is particularly disturbing to me as a mother. In addition to offering a haven to those with the very worst of intentions, online gambling operators have also demonstrated a penchant for preying on those with the purest: young kids.

Take the United Kingdom, for instance, which is the world’s largest regulated online gambling market. The very best example the industry can point to has amounted to its very worst experiment. As a close observer of the industry’s tactics abroad, it is most disheartening to read about how youth in the UK are targeted by online operators.

Among the most harrowing headlines in recent months alone: “Children as young as six bombarded by online gambling ads;” “Online gambling: children among easy prey for advertisers who face few sanctions;” and a new study which found that 4 in 5 kids remember seeing online gambling ads on TV.

Perhaps the only thing more disturbing than such predatory efforts are the consequences they yield. As a result of the online gambling industry’s youth grooming efforts – which can also range from the disbursement of free candy to the display of cartoon characters – it has been reported that “more than half of 16-year-olds have gambling apps on their smartphones” in the UK and two in three British teens say they feel bombarded by online gambling firms. And in Ireland – which is the “largest regulated online betting market in Europe on a population-adjusted basis” – a recent study found that “37 of the 39 most popular gambling sites … did not require any identification to open an account and place bets.”

Unfortunately, these scandals appear to be more of a standard operating procedure rather than an isolated incident for the iGaming industry. It is long past time to direct some outrage and closer scrutiny toward predatory online casinos – particularly as their presence creeps across more and more corners of our country.

Just this year officially authorized operators in New Jersey have had at least six scandals for illegal bets, software glitches, failing to implement geolocation and self-exclusion verification measures for problem gamblers, and, of course, “allowing underage gamblers to place bets online for more than a year.”

Interactive ads for authorized operators – ads which bait potential customers with tempting “free” bonus offers – have also been spotted on websites for society’s most vulnerable populations, including pages with headlines like “Twelve Ways to Stop Gambling Addiction Forever”.

In Pennsylvania, America’s newest iGaming market has already begun to exploit the industry’s oldest tricks. All of the state’s licensed and legal online casinos currently offer gambling games based on children’s fairy tales, including slots entitled “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Hansel and Gretel.” On one of Pennsylvania’s online gambling platforms, the “Hansel and Gretel” slot even populates when a user searches for games labeled “children.” Other egregiously titled games with equally egregious imagery include “FairyTale Legends Red Riding Hood,” “Mirror Mirror,” “Fruit Shop Christmas Edition,” and “Scruffy Duck.”

Online gambling and social media platforms possess some of the very same perils: damaging data breaches, the proclivity among unscrupulous actors to misuse platforms for malicious purposes, as well as the potential for vulnerable, underage minors to misuse apps or websites which put them a single click away from potentially significant monetary costs.

The similarities surrounding these two sectors, however, must not stop with their ability to be held accountable. And so, amid the push to convert every smartphone into a casino open 24/7, I encourage the Americans who are justifiably concerned by social media’s most troubling aspects to consider iGaming’s capacity to amplify such risks – and then subsequently, to reach out to their representatives to help thwart our country’s nascent online gambling industry in its tracks.

 

Former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) is the founder of Lincoln Policy Group and works as a leading advocate for the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling.

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