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Meet the hydras: tracing the illegal gambling operators that sponsor football

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In 2010, Chinese Police arrested Wang Tianbao (汪天宝) for acting as an agent to recruit Chinese customers for a Happy Paradise (again, 乐天堂) gambling ring. News reports outlined that Tianbao was working as an agent to direct people to a Fun88 domain. 

However, police in Jiangsu Province found that despite the arrest of Wang, remittance money continued to flow to him, illustrating that his arrest had no impact on the gambling business’ operations.

It would appear that a corruption of Wang’s name lives on – perhaps as a middle finger raised by criminals at the police and regulators that attempt to shut down illegal gambling operations targeting China. Or perhaps it is a corruption of Tianyu Technology, the former owner of Yabo.

Tianbo Sports’ website indicates that it sponsors several European football clubs across the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, and Serie A, including Leicester City and Juventus. This links Tianbo to JiangNan, JNTY, 6686, OB Sports and eKings, all of which sponsor both clubs in deals arranged by Hashtage, some of which are promoted via TGP Europe.

Accusations of kidnapping and human trafficking

Sometimes, the mask slips. The ‘Rules’ section on BK8’s UK-facing website – also operated by TGP Europe – indicates that it is owned by Black Hawk Technology, a company based in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

Sihanoukville is a notorious hub for online scams and casinos utilised by criminals. People are either lured to the area by false job offers, or are kidnapped and enslaved, with their families forced to pay a ransom to buy their freedom. There are reports that people are tortured if targets are not met.

In April of this year, PAGCOR confirmed that both Tianyu and BOE United Technology had worked with a company called Infiniweb Technology Inc. Infiniweb is understood to have close links with Xionwei Technologies, which is accused of being involved in kidnapping and human trafficking. 

The accusations of kidnapping and human trafficking were outlined in a 120-page report from 2023, submitted to the nineteenth congress of the Republic of the Philippines

But questions remain about whether PAGCOR is fully committed to breaking the links between crime, gambling, and human trafficking. In the update of its license list from 15 January 2024, PAGCOR granted provisional licenses to a number of companies which are also understood to be linked to human trafficking.

Updates by Philippine regulator is the final nail in the coffin

However, following questions from Play the Game, PAGCOR also made other changes when it amended its lists of gambling licenses on 15 January 2024, as the Philippine regulator cancelled the licences for BOE United Technology, OG Global Access, and Rapoo Pro Technology.

All three were previously only regulated as a ‘service provider’ to the gambling industry. As this video explains, this only entitles them to provide services to a company that already holds a gambling licence.

All 26 of BOE United Technology’s gambling brands have the same footer page, which claims that they are licensed by the Malta Gaming Authority and the British Virgin Islands (BVI) Financial Services Commission. Both of these bodies have previously confirmed that none of the 26 BOE United Technology brands are licensed by them. 

As mentioned, Fun88 is owned by OG Global Access and sponsors Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United. Googling ‘Fun88’ in Chinese characters (樂天堂) via a Hong Kong Virtual Private Network (VPN) takes you to either fun88china.com or fun88asia.com. Both sites mention that they are owned by OG Global Access, which the site claims is licensed by e-Gambling Montenegro. 

However, e-Gambling Montenegro was shut down in 2020 after being found to issue fake licences but the regulator still appears to be operating, as Fun88’s licence claims to be ‘valid’ until October 2023. PAGCOR’s updated list exposes this for the smokescreen it is.

PAGCOR’s updated list is the final nail in the coffin and underlines the scale of the problem. If your team is one of the 50-plus European football clubs that have deals with any of the gambling brands owned by BOE, Rapoo, OG Global Access or 978 Tech N.V., it is guilty of promoting illegal gambling. 

Also guilty are the agencies involved in brokering the deals, the agencies facilitating their ability to advertise via European football, and the companies accepting money for billboard advertising from such brands. As explained, the money taken may also have links to organised crime.

The explosion of underregulated gambling has changed the game

If all of the above sounds incredibly confusing, that’s because it’s supposed to. The aim is to create many opaque business arms so that criminal cash flow cannot be traced, and the true owners behind those businesses cannot be identified.

“The explosion of underregulated online gambling platforms and crypto exchanges has changed the game,” said Jeremy Douglas of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), introducing a new report into casinos, cyber fraud and people trafficking in South East Asia

“Expansion of the illicit economy has required a technology-driven revolution in underground banking to allow for faster anonymized transactions, commingling of funds, and new business opportunities for organized crime. The development of scalable, digitized casino and crypto-based solutions has supercharged the criminal business environment across Southeast Asia,” explains Douglas.

Local regulators cannot keep pace with what has become a global problem and – in some cases – appear actively involved in facilitating this illegal industry. 

Great Britain’s Gambling Commission has denied repeated Freedom of Information requests regarding the ownership of TGP Europe, which is profiting from promoting unlicensed gambling via British sport. It doesn’t operate a gambling website that it owns, yet its licence remains intact.

Antillephone has sublicensed 43 domains owned by 8xBet/978Bet, a company linked to crime and people trafficking. If Curaçao were serious about regulating internet gambling, rather than just licensing it, Antillephone’s ‘Master Licence’ would be suspended tomorrow. Yet it continues to operate.

PAGCOR’s suspension of licences might appear encouraging. But new provisional licences involve companies understood to have connections to criminal operations.  For every company and/or brand that is taken out for offering illegal gambling, another is ready and waiting to take its place. It would appear that the bizarre game of whack-a-mole engineered by criminal gambling operations is set to continue, at least for the time being.

The fact that over 50 European football clubs have partnerships with illegal gambling operations underlines the scale of the problem. Hit by zero spectators during COVID-19, football has allowed itself to become reliant on criminal proceeds.

There is currently a local approach to what has become a global issue. Regulators want the licence fees and taxes that online gambling provides, but this piecemeal approach plays into the hands of criminals. There will always be a cheaper, more relaxed regulator available on a rock somewhere in the sea.

Nobody wants to stop regulated gambling providing much-needed income to national treasuries and to sport. But if sport wants to stop itself being used to promote criminal operations, then an international, specialised, regulator is needed.

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