Bookies take to messaging apps to participate in $200-bn World Cup bets

India's Jasprit Bumrah, right, celebrates the dismissal of South Africa's Quinton de Kock during the Cricket World Cup match between South Africa and India at the Hampshire Bowl in Southampton, England, Wednesday, June 5, 2019. (AP/PTI)
Ankit Khanna (name changed) is a confident man. Whatever the outcome of the India-Pakistan match in the World Cup on Sunday, he thinks he would win. Khanna has kept aside around Rs 3 lakh to bet on the one of the most anticipated matches, which might attract about a billion TV viewers.

Khanna has reason to be this confident. “My brother-in-law is going to be at the Old Trafford stadium on Sunday watching it live. I would get ball-by-ball updates from him moments before the televised action. 

I will place all my bets accordingly. If everything goes my way, I might be Rs 6 lakh ‘up’ by the end of the match,” he said. 

Welcome to the world of end-to-end encryption, self-destructing messages, and mobile wallets, where police have almost no way of tracking the $200-billion plus money flowing online during this World Cup.

In the online world of betting, the choices are endless — fly-by-night betting apps that come up almost right before an Indian Premier League (IPL) season, major one-day series or the World Cup, as well as foreign legal betting platforms where one places bets mostly via conduits. However, traditional small-time bookies, who earlier operated from hotel rooms using multiple mobile phones, have now migrated to messaging apps.

Why Telegram?

According to senior Delhi Police officials, the most prevalent messaging app among bookies these days is Telegram. According to its website, Telegram is a messaging app with a focus on speed and security. “With Telegram, you can send messages, photos, videos and files, as well as create groups for up to 200,000 people or channels for broadcasting to unlimited audiences. In addition to this, we support end-to-end encrypted voice calls. If you want secrecy, try our device-specific Secret Chats with self-destructing messages, photos, and videos — and lock your app with an additional passcode,” the platform says.

The ability to add thousands of people to a single group and the security of having absolutely no digital footprint are the main reasons why Telegram has become a bookie’s favourite go-to app.

“A bookie using a brand new phone number before every match opens a new Telegram account. Then he spreads the word about the ‘box’ being opened via the app itself. The contacts of the bookie further bring in more people. So almost 20 minutes before the match, as many as 2,000 people are on the group starting to make bets on who would win the toss,” said a senior Delhi Police Crime Branch officer. 

The ‘box’ is an open channel, in this case a Telegram group, where the bookie keeps on giving the rates on each ball, over and run. 

Bets are placed on this basis.

“Smaller bookies are more and more using messaging apps like Telegram. They do not need to have multiple mobile phones, or people running the numbers for a single match. Three bookies can run a whole match, which could be worth upwards of Rs 10 crore,” added the officer.

While WhatsApp was earlier used by bookies, the limit on the number of people who can be part of a group and the fears of their conversations being tracked have made them move to apps such as Telegram.

With betting thriving in India, there have been talks over the last few years to finally legalise it for better regulation, though nothing has happened till now. “Last year, the Law Commission recommended regulating gambling and sports betting, including in cricket, but there has been no progress on that. A private members Bill was also introduced by Shashi Tharoor to regulate online sports and gaming, but that lapsed. It (online betting) is going on, and bets from India continue to get placed through channels like Telegram and WhatsApp,” said Jay Sayta, founder, a website monitoring gambling law developments in India.

Mobile wallets to make payments

 While cash is still the king, when it comes to making or receiving payments for bets, mobile wallets have become a preferred choice of transactions.

“People placing bets maintain four to five wallets on a single phone number. Mostly a person placing bets might operate from three different phone numbers. So distributing and breaking bets into smaller payments becomes quite easy. They are easily able to place bets upwards of Rs 4 lakh by the end of a match. Bookies and their accomplices, on the other hand, might have access to as many as 100 to 150 different mobile wallet accounts --some belonging to them, the rest belonging to friends and family. It is a major operation of maintaining the accounts and finally collecting the cash,” added the officer.

What the law says

According to legal experts, laws around online betting and the use of online payment gateways, e-wallets and platforms such Telegram are complex, especially in the absence of a specific law.

However, experts say that under the IT Act, any use of an electronic network or resource to commit or facilitate an illegal activity is prohibited and a punishable offence. “Under Section 79 of the IT Act, they are obligated to take all due care to prevent the misuse of their networks and would come under the jurisdiction of Indian courts by virtue of Section 75 of the IT Act. Further, RBI directives on e-commerce also prohibit the use of online payment channels for purposes of gambling and betting, but due to lack of proper enforcement or scrutiny, such activities continue unchecked,” said Salman Waris, managing partner at TechLegis Advocates & Solicitors.

Modus operandi
| A bookie using a new phone number before every match opens a new Telegram account
| He spreads the word about the ‘box’ (group) being opened via the app 
| The contacts of the bookie bring in more people 
| Almost 20 minutes before the match, as many as 2,000 people are on the group 
| The bookie gives the rates on each ball, over and run, based on which bets are placed
| After the match, payments are made via mobile wallets