Currently, operators have 72 hours to carry out the necessary age verification checks, during which customers are permitted to deposit funds and place bets but not withdraw any winnings. If it turns out that the customer is under age, the operator must return the customer's initial stake.
The Gambling Commission has moved to update the age verification requirements (37-page / 566KB PDF) in a move aimed at addressing the risk of children gambling, further helping operators "better prevent harm or detect criminal activity" and identifying 'self-excluded' customers who are trying to gamble. However, the measures will generally prohibit operators from delaying pay-outs on the basis of age verification rules and the regulator conceded they could also cause "greater levels of friction" when customers try to sign up for services.
The new requirements are set out in updated licensing rules.
They read: "Licensees must obtain and verify information in order to establish the identity of a customer before that customer is permitted to gamble. Information must include, but is not restricted to, the customer’s name, address and date of birth. A request made by a customer to withdraw funds from their account must not result in a requirement for additional information to be supplied as a condition of withdrawal if the licensee could have reasonably requested that information earlier. This requirement does not prevent a licensee from seeking information on the customer which they must obtain at that time due to any other legal obligation."
"Before permitting a customer to deposit funds, licensees should inform customers what types of identity documents or other information the licensee may need the customer to provide, the circumstances in which such information might be required, and the form and manner in which such information should be provided. Licensees must take reasonable steps to ensure that the information they hold on a customer’s identity remains accurate," according to the new rules.
The Commission confirmed that the rules will not require age verification checking at the point a new customer account is opened and registered, but confirmed that, in addition to verifying the age of customers before the deposit funds or gamble, operators will need to carry out age verification checks before customers are given access to "free-to-play versions of gambling games" on their websites.
"While free-to-play games are not technically gambling (there is no prize involved), there is no legitimate reason why they should be available to children," the Commission said.
Gambling law expert Audrey Ferrie of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "The application of the rules to 'free-to-play' games is an interesting development which might herald greater involvement by the Commission in social gaming."
The Commission said it had chosen not to require operators to obtain and verify customers' email addresses since "email verification is unlikely to be sufficiently reliable in establishing the identity of an individual gambler". However, it said obtaining an email address from the customer "will normally be an essential component" of adhering to rules designed to help self-excluded customers from gambling.
The changes apply to all remote betting and gaming operators, as well as lotteries. They will take effect from 7 May.
Christopher Rees-Gay of Pinsent Masons said the changes reinforce the Commission’s continued push to regulate online gambling.
"The changes follow on from the regulator's announcement last year that some online operators were treating customers unfairly by requesting additional identity information when the customer attempted to withdraw winnings," he said.
Neil McArthur, Gambling Commission chief executive, said: "These changes will protect children and the vulnerable from gambling-related harm, and reduce the risk of crime linked to gambling. They will also make gambling fairer by helping consumers collect their winnings without unnecessary delay."
Jeremy Wright, UK digital, culture, media and sport secretary, said: "These significant changes mean operators must check someone’s age before they gamble, and not after. They rightly add an extra layer of protection for children and young people who attempt to gamble online. By extending strong age verification rules to free-to-play games we are creating a much safer online environment for children, helping to shut down a possible gateway to gambling- related harm."