Online punters are being cheated out of winnings they expected to receive, a City watchdog has found.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it is taking “enforcement action” against five online bookies – which it is not willing to identify at this stage – claiming punters are not getting a fair deal and companies are holding on to people’s money.
It comes amid an ongoing investigation into the £4.5bn sector following allegations that “confusing and unclear” terms and conditions – or mistakes – were being cited for cutting winnings.
The CMA said it had heard from “around 800 unhappy customers” and has demanded companies answer questions about how they operate – particularly through their use of sign-up promotions – such as free bets.
Sign-up promotions are designed to attract players to casino-like gaming websites by offering bonus cash when they put in their own money.
It found customers might have to play hundreds of times before they are allowed to withdraw any money, so they do not have the choice to quit while they are ahead and walk away with their winnings when they want to.
There are also concerns firms are stopping customers from taking money out of their accounts.
Video: Online gambling firms face crackdown
Nisha Arora, CMA senior director for consumer enforcement, told Sky News the watchdog had been “overwhelmed” with complaints about “torturous restrictions” and players unable to access winnings amounting to “thousands of pounds”.
She said: “New customers are being enticed by tempting promotions only to find the dice are loaded against them – and players can find a whole host of hurdles in their way when they want to withdraw their money.
“Some people sometimes end up with nothing.
“That’s why we are today launching enforcement action where we think the law has been broken.
“We are also asking people who have had difficulties withdrawing their money when they’ve gambled online to tell us about it, and help probe this issue even further.”
Gambling Commission chief executive Sarah Harrison added: “Gambling operators must treat customers fairly, but some have been relying on terms that are unclear with too many strings attached.
“Whilst the CMA takes enforcement action on how consumer legislation is followed, the gambling industry should be under no illusion that if they don’t comply with consumer law, we will see this as a breach of their operating licence, and take decisive action.”
The online gambling sector has grown by around 150% since 2009.
More than 6.5 million people regularly log on to gambling websites.