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How bookies are fleecing football fans in the UK

22nd November, 00:01

Confessions of an ex-bookie: I know all the tricks of a trade that's now a stitch-up

When the fun stops, the bookies start counting your money.

Behind the banter and bravado, the slogans and stunts, the UK gambling industry is a massive cash-making machine whose tills never stop ringing. With punters' money. Your money.

A key reason for the £14.5billion profit made by UK gambling firms last year is the brilliance of their sales pitch, selling a dream of a harmless game delivering huge winnings that prove irresistible to 46 per cent of the population. That is how many of us bet every month, according to the Gambling Commission.

The UK gambling industry is a gigantic cash-making machine whose tills never stop ringing

With the promise of free bets and bonuses, along with gimmicks and celebrity endorsements, the bookies pose as friends of the fans they fleece. In addition to the well-publicised marketing stunts, Sportsmail has uncovered evidence of more underhand tactics used by bookmakers to maximise profits.

These include offering horribly poor-value odds for headline bets, limiting the stakes of successful gamblers and making it difficult for winners to withdraw funds from their accounts by demanding personal financial information they may not want to disclose.

In an example of the remarkable lengths some bookies will go to in order to keep hold of your money, Sportsmail has spoken to one gambler who was asked to send a selfie with his passport photograph when seeking to withdraw just £40.

He refused on a point of principle and never claimed his winnings. Another frustrated punter told Sportsmail that an online operator had limited him to betting just 10p on the outcome of a horse race.

While it is an old gambling truism that the house always wins, very few of the punters entering the UK's 8,406 betting shops will be aware of the edge the bookies are giving themselves, by manipulating the game in their favour.

Even Sportsmail's team of industry experts were stunned at some of the profit margins bookies are engineering, particularly from many of the most popular football bets such as accumulators.

In simple terms, the margin is the house's cut. It is the equivalent of the green zero on a roulette table which, in the case of that game, is fixed at 2.7 per cent, a profit casinos might justify as covering costs.

UK gambling firms made a huge profit of £14.5billion last year, largely down to their sales pitch

In sports betting, however, there is no industry standard for margins, which can be as high as the bookmaker chooses because they set the odds. Sportsmail's analysis of this weekend's betting markets revealed some staggering profit margins in their favour.

The odds offered by many high street bookmakers for so-called Sections List accumulators -- in which punters must select the winner of five, six or seven matches grouped by the bookie -- are particularly outrageous and guaranteed to give them huge profits.

To compound matters for the customer, the matches available are selected by the bookmaker, giving them a further edge.

Sportsmail backed Arsenal, Tottenham, Watford, Fulham, Swindon, Walsall and Celtic to win in matches this weekend in the popular Sections game -- a seven-match accumulator bet from the Coral weekend football coupon with accumulated odds of 38/1.

If all seven results come in, a £1 bet will return £38.93. The stake in a successful bet is returned to the punter in addition to winnings.

After placing the bet, our analysts calculated the neutral odds -- how the price would look without the bookie taking a cut -- as 88/1, giving Coral a profit margin of 128.8 per cent.

A similar six-team accumulator from William Hill's Sections List in which we backed Tottenham, Leicester, Bournemouth, Fulham, Cardiff and Falkirk is little better, with a wager on six favourites giving odds of just 37/1, when the neutral odds are 75/1.

In this instance, William Hill's margin is 102 per cent, so even in the rare event that they lose a bet, the bookies are winning. And it is those rare wins which encourage punters to keep gambling.

Our investigators found similar examples at other high street bookmakers. A six-team accumulator at Ladbrokes in which we backed the favourites gave the bookie a margin of 102 per cent. Five favourites selected at Paddy Power resulted in a 49 per cent margin, with Betfred the most generous of the Big Five to punters, with their margin on a five-team accumulator 37 per cent.

Compared to the 2.7 per cent on a roulette table, that is staggering.

Bookies also offer on-the-day specials, such as the one on the betting slip (above) on FA Cup ties earlier this month. William Hill offered 20/1 on Blackpool, Ipswich, Mansfield, Rotherham and Peterborough winning and all five matches having more than one goal, but the fair odds were 34/1, giving them a profit margin of 67 per cent.

Brian Chappell, a gambler who founded campaign group Justice for Punters, welcomed Sportsmail's investigation and accused high street bookmakers of discriminating against older people who make up most of their customers.

'Unless you're cute, you get stitched up,' said Chappell. 'The average age of people who go into shops is higher than the average punter and they're not of the generation who compare prices for anything, whether it's bets or buying insurance. It's not transparent.'

The gambling yield keeps rising - football betting gave bookies profits of £1.56bn last year

Football fans are vulnerable due to the popularity of accumulators offering what appear high odds for predicting the outcome of multiple matches. In reality, these are heavily stacked in the bookmakers' favour. This form of gambling has been deeply ingrained in British culture since the first football pools were set up by Littlewoods in 1923, but participation has increasingly switched from coupons to other forums such as shops and online.

The growth in football betting in recent years has been astonishing, with the aggressive advertising campaigns based around multiples and accumulators clearly paying off.

Gambling companies featured at least once in 95 per cent of ad breaks during TV football matches in 2017, according to BBC research, creating a backlash which led to a group of bookies agreeing to a 'whistle-to-whistle' ban on TV adverts during live games.

The gambling yield has continued to rise, however, with football betting giving bookmakers profits of £1.56bn last year, an extraordinary increase on the £440m they were making four years ago.

In 2015, racing was still the most lucrative sport for bookies with profits of £756m, but the horses are now behind with a take of £1.1bn last year. There has also been a rise in addiction. A report from the Gambling Commission reveals 340,000 'problem gamblers' in the UK, with 1.7m 'at risk'.

Horse racing is now lagging several furlongs behind with a total take of £1.1bn last year

Most worryingly, the biggest increase is among children, with 55,000 11-to-16-year-olds having gambling problems and another 70,000 at risk among 450,000 youngsters who bet regularly.

Marc Etches, chief executive of charity Gamble Aware, told Sportsmail the rise of a gambling culture is creating a public health crisis. A recent report from the Institute of Public Policy Research estimates gambling costs the government £1.2bn each year due to the burden it places on the NHS, social security and the prison system.

'Gambling should be viewed as a public health matter with help available to all,' said Etches.

Sportsmail's investigation suggests bookies' activities exacerbate such problems. In addition to skewing markets in their favour in the shops, many are also making it increasingly difficult for more experienced gamblers to win online.

The use of Iovation software to rank customers' performance enables bookies to restrict the amount staked (thereby limiting winnings), refuse bets or even close accounts, while serial losers are given VIP status and privileges to encourage them to carry on.

The result is a toxic game which many winners are barred from playing, leaving only losers at the card table and the bookies laughing all the way to the bank.

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