Online gambling a risk for provinces: experts

Online gambling experts are warning provinces to brace themselves for hackers, cheats and criminal gangs that target gaming sites.
A gambler plays online poker in his apartment in Chicopee, Mass., in 2007. Experts warn Canada's provinces to brace for hackers and cheats when they offer online gaming services. (Stephan Savoia/Associated Press)

Online gambling experts are warning provinces to brace themselves for hackers, cheats and criminal gangs that target gaming sites.

The warning comes after British Columbia launched its online gambling site, a venture that was marred by a series of glitches. The province, the first to launch an internet casino operation, abruptly shut down operations mid-July, just hours after the launch, due to "load issues." 

BC Lottery Corporation had more unanticipated technical glitches Thursday, but after hours of delays, they were up and running again early Friday morning. The site offers players blackjack, video poker and slots among other games.

B.C.'s website offers blackjack, video poker and slots, among other games. (BCLC)

As a result, BCLC continues to investigate the cause of what it calls "data crossover" that allowed users unauthorized access to 134 player accounts.

"BCLC's investigative report will hopefully be made public as to what went wrong," said criminologist John McMullan of St. Mary's University in Halifax.

"I'd like to know what were the performance issues that were related to the vulnerabilities surrounding the software related to this launch."

BCLC spokesperson Seamus Gordon insisted that currently in B.C. officials have "no evidence that there was technical sabotage or hacking" aimed at the provincial site.

"This was a server defect," Gordon said of the lottery's recent problems.

New to online gambling

McMullan and other gambling watchdogs fear governments new to the online gambling business stand to be ripped off by criminal gangs that are far more technologically savvy and advanced.

While B.C. is currently the only province with an online casino site, Quebec and Ontario have plans for online gambling, and Nova Scotia has expressed interest in the possibility.

"I think it's a risk," McMullan said. "Provincial government should not think they are going to some way or the other create a crime-free site. To be honest, they're going to have the same kinds of issues [as existing private sites.]

"They are going to have to protect their players, they are going to have good technologies and good skilled security people who are able to detect these sorts of problems and filter them out before they happen," he added.

"It is a gamble ... It is a gamble in many ways, I think."

McMullan and Aunshul Rege, of the school of criminal justice at Rutgers University in New Jersey, have published a study in the Journal of Gambling Issues detailing how criminals collude, cheat and use sophisticated computer plots to shut down gaming sites altogether.

"Attacks have occurred quite frequently in all kinds of jurisdictions," McMullan said, citing several cases where cyber criminals have commandeered hundreds of computers to launch "D-DOS attacks" (which stands for Distributed Denial of Service) against gambling sites.

"The attack basically herds all of these computers and directs a whole bunch of requests at the site, so the site actually crawls to a stop or is taken down because it can't manage all of the requests that are coming at it." 

"It's to show a great deal of awe to the gambling provider and then to extort ransom monies from them. Or, D-DOS attacks can be much more subtle, used as it were to sabotage or to slow down sites to gradually make that site uncompetitive."

Cheaters are well-versed

McMullan has also documented scores of cases where cheaters have used special software, readily available online, to help them play, and calculate odds against unsuspecting competitors at online gambling sites.

"They use the technology usually on autopilot to play as a stand-in for them," said McMullan, explaining there's millions to be made with the computer-assisted programs.

"There are all kinds of packages out there that claim to be able to allow you to play against other players, to read and understand and compete against all kinds of hands and plays that might appear at a poker table, and it gives them an advantage because they have factored all that information into an artificial intelligence program."

BCLC notes that its website does not include any games where players play directly against other players, which eliminates the risk of collaboration.

Cheats and online criminals are the heart of a recent scandal at one of the world's biggest online gambling sites, The company recently paid players close to $2 million US after finding a band of players from China were going online and colluding to fix games of Texas hold 'em poker.

"The allegation is that several players were playing together kind of as a team, which is against the rules," said Aaron Todd, a reporter with the online industry publication Casino City News.

"Obviously, if you know what other players in the game are holding, or if you're able to manipulate who's got chip stacks, you have a tremendous advantage in these tournaments," he added. "We simply know they were in China, but we don't really know [more], outside of what their usernames were."

Todd praised PokerStars for reviewing its player data, tracing the problem and refunding the millions to players.

He said there's a lesson in these kinds of cheating cases for jurisdictions looking to launch government-run online sites.

"I think that government regulation on the whole would be good because you'd then be able to go after people taking these actions," said Todd, noting that private sites are powerless to prosecute cheaters who are often anonymous and untouchable given they are offshore.

In order to play on the B.C. casino site, a person must be 19 or older and a resident of the province.

Todd, like others, still fear governments, who are in the business of running traditional casinos and conventional card games, don't have the technical expertise and savvy to keep ahead of sophisticated rings of international cyber criminals.