'Ghost games' betting scam costs bookie thousands of pounds

Football Pitch
Thousands of pounds was won on football matches that never took place

A bookmaker has lost thousands of pounds in a betting scam, where bets are placed on games that never happen.

Isle of Man-based Celton Manx, who operate Sbobet, paid out on FC Slutsk's 2-1 'friendly win' against fellow Belarus side Shakhter Soligorsk.

But the match did not take place, and both clubs say they were unwitting victims of a "ghost game".

"We got a statement that the game took place, so we paid out," said Celton Manx executive director Bill Mummery.

The statement, in Russian, was supposed to have come from FC Slutsk but both Belarusian Premier League clubs have denied any involvement in the fixture to the Belarus FA, who have reported the matter to the police and Uefa.

Belarus police are also investigating a complaint from Shakhter, claiming that their website and mailbox had been hacked.

What is a ghost game?

It is one of two types of 'fabricated match'. Put simply, a fixture is listed through one of numerous companies that provide data to the bookmaking industry. But it is either a 'fake match', one that takes places but is played between two different teams than the ones listed or a 'ghost game', one that doesn't take place at all.

A game that does not take place. Why would anyone fall for that?

As Shakhter have claimed, their website was hacked into a couple of days beforehand, and a fake match report was added. "It is very clever and very lucrative," said Fred Lord, director of anti-corruption and transparency operations at the International Centre for Sport Security.

Why are ghost games attractive?

Match-fixers do not have to bribe officials, teams or players to fix a game because the game is not actually happening.

Why do bookmakers pay out?

The industry is based on goodwill. Punters expect to be paid out promptly and unless there is reason for suspicion, that is what happens. In this instance, Sbobet were suspicious and contacted FC Slutsk. Once they received a statement saying the game took place, there was no further reason to withhold payment.

But why offer odds on a friendly match in Belarus in the first place?

Football betting is a vast industry, involving virtually every country in the world. Interest in the sport everywhere is high. It would be naive to think the only matches of interest are those that receive the greatest focus in the UK.

In the wider scheme of things, how big is the ghost games problem?

"There are not a lot of so-called ghost games going on to my knowledge," said Kevin Carpenter, a sports lawyer at Hill Dickinson who specialises in regulatory and integrity matters. "We are only just starting to scrape the surface of the extent of what is going on with the help of betting monitoring organisations and the input of global bodies such as Interpol (International Criminal Police Organisation), but I would say match-fixing is a much bigger issue."

How much money are we talking about in relation to match-fixing?

"From sport we have the figure at $140bn (£90.98bn) being laundered through illegal betting schemes," said Lord. "It is a serious problem. In some jurisdictions, there is little to no regulation. It is easy for people to commit betting fraud, which then feeds serious crime."

Can the problem be solved?

Lord, who was previously the director of Interpol's anti-corruption office, says there are three main areas to focus on:

1: He wants gambling to be "legalised globally" and "regulated".

2: The exchange of information from betting organisations should be regulated, says Lord. "If betting institutions find evidence of suspicious betting, it should compel them to report it to a law enforcement body or a sporting institution," he added.

3: "Clamp down on the illegal betting syndicates worldwide. A hostile environment needs to be created so that the people committing betting fraud know there will be punishments for them," said Lord.

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