Original Article Source: ABC News, Steve Cannane and Kyle Taylor
For almost four years, Gavin Fineff kept his secret from his closest friends, family and even his wife.
On the surface, life seemed good for the 41-year-old senior financial planner and father of two from Sydney’s north shore. He was making headlines in the financial press — helping cancer victims to secure trauma insurance payouts — and his professional skills were rated highly by his clients.
Three months ago, that life dramatically unravelled.
Mr Fineff confessed to family and friends that he’d lost a lot of money, much of it other people’s.
The money wasn’t lost on a deal gone wrong, a bad investment, or a plunge in the stock market — but to three of the big online betting agencies.
The total was more than $8 million.
He’s now facing potential jail time.
“My life is destroyed. I had to tell my wife that there’s a part of me that she had no idea about,” he says.
Mr Fineff takes responsibility for his actions, but the former financial planner feels he’s not the only one to blame.
Amid a deep personal sense of shame, he’s now determined to speak out against what he sees as the predatory practices of sports betting companies who he says took advantage of his addiction.
“I can’t take away the pain that I have caused people around me at this time,” he says.
“But I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that other people don’t go through this.”
It started in the pub. Then came the VIP treatment
Mr Fineff’s gambling started in moderation.
“For the most part, it was just like anyone else — a couple of drinks with friends at the pub,” he says.
“I’d bet mostly on horse racing. When the option became online and on your mobile, I guess that’s when it started to become serious.”
After opening an account with TAB, his gambling escalated. Before long, he was given “VIP status” and assigned a personal customer service manager, who’d call him often and dish out special treatment.
“I was offered all sorts of things, events and experiences and bonus money to bet with. They had reward systems for more deposits.”
VIP customers are a key driver of betting industry profits and have been a source of concern in overseas jurisdictions. The UK’s gambling regulator found one of the major betting agencies there took 83 per cent of all its deposits from VIPs, who make up just 2 per cent of its customers.
As Mr Fineff’s betting behaviour changed from moderate to risky, he’d become an ideal target.
The more he gambled, the more he lost and the harder he tried to win it back.
Rather than offering him support, his VIP manager would instead be on the phone offering bonus bets and tickets to sports events to keep him punting.
“It was seductive. Very soon after that, I was addicted, completely addicted,” he says.
“I know that through having now looked at my betting statements. The behaviour is nothing short of insane.”
ABC Investigations has viewed Mr Fineff’s transaction history with TAB. In just one six-month period in 2017, he lost $1.5 million.
He says he was in the thrall of a serious addiction and lacked the insight to realise how dire his situation had become. He believes that mental state was compounded — even exploited — by the behaviour of the betting agency.
“At the time, I was never asked anything about my activity, or if it might be harmful or how I was funding that,” he says.
“In fact, I got more service, I got more contact [and] offered all sorts of things — events, dinners, lunches, rewards.”
Follow the Money
Mr Fineff wasn’t just gambling his own money.
The ABC understands the source of much of these funds and how they were obtained are now the subject of a NSW Police investigation.
If Mr Fineff is charged and convicted, he could face time in jail.
Tax statements seen by ABC Investigations show his annual income at the time was about $130,000. He says Tabcorp didn’t ask him for any proof of funds until it was too late.
By the time Tabcorp finally wrote to Mr Fineff asking what his gross annual salary was in May 2018, he had lost $3.9 million with TAB.
AUSTRAC, the federal government agency set up to prevent and detect criminal abuse of the financial system, plays a regulatory role when it comes to proceeds of crime in the gambling industry.
Peter Soros, deputy CEO of regulatory strategy at AUSTRAC, says strict anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing laws apply to betting agencies. The remit of the laws are broad and include other types of crime such as fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement.
“Betting agencies, like our other businesses that we regulate, are required to consider financial crime risks with their businesses,” he says.
“They need to identify and monitor their customers. They need to report transaction information to us and, importantly, they need to report suspicious matters to us.”
To meet their obligations to AUSTRAC, betting agencies must comply with “know your customer” provisions. That means they must properly check identification documents and have a program in place to deal with high-risk customers.
As part of that program, they need to be able to check the source of income of someone suddenly gambling heavily or making suspicious transactions.
Soros says if betting agencies don’t do additional due diligence checks on high-risk customers, “they do run the risk of not complying with our laws”.
In February 2017, as Mr Fineff’s gambling with TAB was getting out of control, the company was hit with a record fine for failing to meet AUSTRAC requirements.
Tabcorp agreed to pay $45 million to settle a case involving suspicious betting transactions and a failure to comply with the legislation.
At the time, Tabcorp said it had “made a significant investment in enhancing our compliance over the last three years”.
Justice Nye Perram found that Tabcorp failed to provide AUSTRAC reports about suspicious matters on time, or at all, on 105 occasions.
Mr Fineff wants to know whether TAB contacted AUSTRAC about his betting behaviour. He’s staggered that given the size and frequency of his transactions, it took years for Tabcorp to ask for proof of income.
“From September 2016 to June 2018 there were 194 times where I deposited $10,000 or more from my NAB account into my TAB account,” he says. “In the same period, there were 23 times where I made a withdrawal of more than $10,000 from my TAB account. Ten of these times were for amounts of $50,000.”
Tabcorp did not respond to questions from ABC Investigations about why it did not ask for proof of income earlier. The betting agency would not confirm whether it had contacted AUSTRAC about Mr Fineff, saying it was “bound by privacy and confidentiality considerations”.
In a statement, Tabcorp said it was “subject to a range of reporting and other obligations overseen by various regulators including AUSTRAC and complies with these obligations, as well as maintaining comprehensive compliance and AML/CTF programs”.
AUSTRAC said it could not respond to questions about any individual cases.
In the 18 months after Tabcorp was issued with the record-breaking fine, Mr Fineff gambled away more than $3 million with the company.
In a panic that he was being investigated by Tabcorp, he avoided providing information about his salary.
A few weeks later, he was relieved to find his account had been frozen.
He thought his nightmare of spiralling losses was over.
An unknown caller
Mr Fineff was standing on a train platform a few weeks later when he got an unexpected call.
“It was a gentleman from Ladbrokes. He told me what they could do for me in terms of being a superior experience, that he can do things that TAB couldn’t. And he offered thousands of dollars [in bonus bets] to try them out.”
Mr Fineff asked him how he got his number.
“I didn’t know this person. I was a bit surprised to get the contact,” he says.
“He said that he [previously] worked at TAB where I was a customer before.”
Mr Fineff felt nervous. He says he disclosed that his TAB account had been frozen, and he was worried that he was being investigated. The Ladbrokes employee came up with a plan to ease his anxiety.
“He said that wouldn’t be a problem at all and went on to say that he could set up the account for me. He set up the account in a different name and without me providing identification.”
Mr Fineff was a long-time Canterbury Bulldogs fan, and he and his new account manager settled on the name Gavin Lamb — after Terry Lamb — one of the club’s favourite sons.
Soros from AUSTRAC would not comment on Mr Fineff’s case, but he said identification checks were critical to upholding the law.
“If they had just done that one thing back in March 2017 that they were saying to the regulator and the public, my life would be very different,” he says.
“Betting agencies are required to know their customer and undertake the appropriate identity-checking processes to ensure that the customers who they’re dealing with are who they say they are,” he says.
“Any reporting entity who doesn’t follow the obligations of the act runs the risk of being taken to court by AUSTRAC, or having other sanctions put in place by AUSTRAC.”
Mr Fineff says he never read or signed up to Ladbrokes’ terms and conditions. He lost close to $700,000 with Ladbrokes in the 20 months after the account was opened. He says he was never asked for identification or proof of income.
ABC Investigations sent Ladbrokes a list of questions outlining Mr Fineff’s allegations and seeking clarification as to whether it was complying with its AUSTRAC obligations.
Ladbrokes’ response was: “No comment.”
Third betting company lures in Mr Fineff
A few months after he was contacted by Ladbrokes, Mr Fineff received yet another surprise call from a different betting agency.
“I was coming back from taking the kids to the park. I was walking through the garage, past my letterbox and I received a call and I stopped,” he says.
“I remember that I did not move from in front of that letterbox and within the space of 45 minutes I had an account opened and $50,000 [in free bonus bets] in my account and had lost it all.”
Mr Fineff alleges he was once again not asked for identification and did not sign up to any terms and conditions.
Over the next 16 months, he says he lost about $3.6 million with BetEasy. He says much of his frenetic betting activity was driven by the free bonus bets on offer.
“In the first three months they gave me $1 million of bonus money to bet with. I lost the same amount. They were basically matching all my deposits and just giving me whatever I wanted,” he says.
“In total, it was about $3 million of bonus bets from BetEasy.”
He says BetEasy never asked him for proof of income, and it only checked for identification in the last two months of his gambling with it.
In a statement, BetEasy said: “BetEasy takes seriously its regulatory and responsible gambling obligations and employs significant resources to ensure they are met.”
Mr Fineff alleges two former employees from Tabcorp took his contact details with them when they went to work for BetEasy and Ladbrokes, in order to entice him to open new betting accounts.
ABC Investigations asked Tabcorp whether this occurred and if this was general practice within the industry.
In a statement, Tabcorp said: “Tabcorp employees are subject to strict obligations with regard to customer information and confidentiality. These obligations extend beyond an employee’s employment with us.
“Employees are reminded of this on departure and any potential breach is taken very seriously.”
Problem gamblers ‘traded like property’
A former industry insider has told ABC Investigations this practice of sharing and poaching phone numbers is common practice.
Lauren Levin from Financial Counselling Australia says she’s also aware of this tactic.
“It seems to be something that happens in the gambling industry where there’s a trade in these really profitable losing gamblers,” she says.
“They are traded like property. It’s just unbelievable.”
Neither BetEasy nor Ladbrokes would comment as to whether they knew Mr Fineff’s account had been closed at TAB because of his inability to show proof of income.
He believes he was deliberately targeted.
“What I can be certain of is that they knew that I was a problem gambler, that I was a person that had irrational activity, that I was a losing customer and therefore a winning one for them,” says Mr Fineff.
“How else would they have decided to contact me?”
Paying the price
Australia does not have a highly regulated sports betting industry compared to countries like the UK, France or Sweden.
There is no national gambling regulator, but the Northern Territory Racing Commission has become the main regulator for sports betting almost by default after 20 betting agencies set up shop in Darwin for tax purposes.
Levin says this has not been good for problem gamblers.
“The online betting market operates without a moral compass, and without fear of any of the regulators. It’s like the wild west,” she says.
In her 10 years working at Financial Counselling Australia, Lauren Levin thought she had seen it all when it came to what corporate bookmakers would do to target losing punters.
But even she is shocked by Mr Fineff’s case.
“This behaviour is absolutely, absolutely reprehensible. It’s unethical”, she says.
“It’s against the spirit and the letter of the NT code of responsible gambling that someone can be excluded from one company because they’ve got a problem and someone who knows that then goes to another company and sets them up and gives them a pile of free credits to get them gambling.”
The NT Racing Commission said it had not received any complaints from Mr Fineff about Ladbrokes or BetEasy.
Levin says it is time the Federal Government sets up a national gambling regulator.
“We need a national regulator with the power to make the companies comply with the anti-money laundering legislation and also to make the companies do their bit to prevent gambling harm. It’s not in anyone’s interest to have so much gambling, with so much harm,” she says.
She says in other countries, national regulators make sure betting agencies can’t profit from the proceeds of crime.
“In the UK they can force betting companies to pay back the proceeds of crime. That’s why their system is so much better than what we’ve got, because here the regulator is not doing it and the courts are certainly not doing it.”
Mr Fineff would like to see this sort of change, even though it may be too late for him.
“I look at my kids and know that their upbringing from now is not going to be the same. I know that my wife’s life is not going to be the same. And for others and it’s got to stop. It has to stop.”
“I’m speaking out because I’ve come to the realisation that whilst I’m responsible for what happened, I don’t think I’m the only person to blame.”
Mr Fineff has undergone intensive counselling and hopes he can find a way to repay all the people caught up in his gambling addiction.
“I feel it when I wake up in the night. I feel it when I wake up in the morning. And all I want to do is make amends for it. I hope that I get the opportunity to do that. There’s no part of me that can see me ever getting peace unless I can alleviate their pain.
“I’m taking accountability for this. I’m doing my best to do that. And they [sports betting agencies] are not and they have to. They have to answer to their negligence in the same way that I’m answering to my actions.”