The police have almost no way of tracking the $200 billion plus money flowing online during this World Cup.
Karan Choudhury and Neha Alawadhi report.
IMAGE: Mohammed Shami, centre, celebrates with Virat Kohli, left, and Yuzvendra Chahal after dismissing the well-set Mohammad Nabi during India’s game against Afghanistan, June 22, 2019. Kindly note the image has been posted only for representational purposes. Photograph: Alex Davidson/Getty Images
Whatever the outcome of the India-Pakistan match in the World Cup, Ankit Khanna (name changed) thought he would win.
Khanna had kept aside around Rs 3 lakh to bet on one of the most anticipated matches.
Khanna had reason to be confident.
“My brother-in-law was at Old Trafford stadium watching the game live. I got ball-by-ball updates from him moments before the televised action. I placed all my bets accordingly,” he says.
So, was he on call with the bookie throughout the match? “Of course, not,” he says.
“Everyone uses messaging apps. I am on Telegram.”
And how does he transfer money? “Paytm, Freecharge, MobiKwik — mobile wallets mostly,” he adds.
Welcome to the world of end-to-end encryption, self-destructing messages, and mobile wallets, where the 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 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.
According to senior Delhi police officials, the most prevalent messaging app among bookies these days is Telegram.
According to its Web site, 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,’ the Telegram Web site says, ‘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 states.
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,” says a senior Delhi police crime branch officer.
“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,” the police officer adds.
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,” says the police officer.
“Three bookies can run a whole match, which could be worth upwards of Rs 10 crore,” the officer adds.
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 has been talk 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,” says Jay Sayta, founder Glaws.in, a Web site 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,” says the police officer.
“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,” explains the police officer.
“It is a major operation of maintaining the accounts and finally collecting the cash,” adds 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 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,” says Salman Waris, managing partner at TechLegis Advocates and Solicitors, “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,” adds Waris, “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.”