Don’t Bet On It | Mahadev App-heaval Underscores Unique Challenges for Indian Agencies in Taming Such Sites

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The Mahadev Betting App scandal has blown the lid off the shark of online betting applications enticing people to bet money and get entangled in debt. A News18 investigation shows that with the help of some laptops, a few bank accounts, a website and a public that wants easy money, the racket is flourishing across the country with scores of victims. With international linkages stretching to Pakistan and the Middle East, the racket is also being pushed through advertisements and paid endorsements, celebrities and social media influencers. With no regulatory framework in place to govern the activities of online gaming companies, betting apps show no mercy in swiping public money, say sources in investigating agencies. Also, there is no grievance redressal system, age control, or IPR protection, so no one can complain or reach out to them. Indian agencies even after recording over 8,000 complaints and conducting multiple investigations are still unable to prevent the web of these betting apps from expanding as they operate from different countries and have servers mostly in Dubai. The servers of these apps, which save the data of Indians and manage all the monetary details are located in various West Asian and European countries. But even when these apps are based outside the country, they allow users to pay via all Indian payment gateways which often prompts Indian users to burn their money. The only option left with the agencies is to ban these apps or sites, but that also does not achieve the purpose. Government officials associated with the process of banning and investigation in such cases say that these apps, once banned, come up with similar names and send messages, and hire celebrities and social media influencers to promote their sites. For example, if the government bans Betting360, the owners will come up with multiple names like Betting361, newbetting360, etc, said sources. The fact is, said officials, that even when the Mahadev app is facing various allegations, the site is still available on Google and users can still easily get through it. Despite being based outside India, some of these platforms are widely advertised in Indian newspapers and television channels, and allow users transact in Indian rupees through popular digital payment modes, such as internet banking, UPI, and widely used wallets. Now apart from banning these, the Indian government has also initiated a probe via different agencies and asked intelligence units to gather information about these apps and their real owners, not just the fake directors. Officials told News18 that by paying a few thousand rupees, these companies hire Indian directors and get their documents and companies registered. Afterwards, they also open bank accounts and operate them. The money from these companies is routed to the actual owners through hawala and cryptocurrency, they added. Concerns with these apps According to an official communication of the central government, these online gaming/gambling apps come with potential risks associated with user harms such as financial loss, data privacy concerns due to unauthorised access and storage of data, addiction, suicide, lack of parental control/no age restrictions, and money laundering activities through offshore gambling applications. These online betting and gambling apps are suspected to be duping gamers by manipulating outcomes. Money generated is transferred in small sums through payment gateways. Also, there is no grievance redressal mechanism, player protection measures, data and IPR protection, and safeguards against misleading advertisements. The ministry of home affairs has raised concerns over these offshore apps. The analysis done by a central agency says that these apps not only dent users financially but also affects them mentally due to their addictive properties, especially for children. The World Health Organization (WHO) officially included gaming disorder in the International Classification of Diseases in 2018. Apps designed to defraud! According to officials of intelligence and investigating agencies, during the cyber analysis of these apps, it was found that in most cases, the designer/developer created the platform with the sole aim of defrauding the public. “During the initial period, the users are rewarded with commission and the balance in the wallet could be withdrawn hassle-free. This provides initial confidence among users and they start investing bigger amounts for a greater percentage of commission and a greater number of purchase orders. Later the game gets rigged to cause losses to the players,” an official communication accessed by News18 says. ‘Apps can become tools of espionage’ According to an official, these betting app companies take PAN and Aadhaar details, etc, and have data of lakhs of Indians. While quoting a communication shared with various agencies, a government official said, “Any server-side security abuse has the potential to turn these applications into an espionage tool as the app has the access to critical data of citizens and remote access of such data could be used even for mass surveillance.” The government says that these apps could be used by adversaries to initiate propaganda and mould public opinion as well as change the narrative of public discourse, thereby adversely affecting public order, security of the state, and sovereignty and integrity of the country.

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