"Play and earn daily", "Best online casino in the country", "Up to Tk32,000 bonus for all new players" – these are some of the advertisements by a Facebook group called Play Games. The tempting advertisements had the picture of a Bangladeshi cricket star and the contents were boosted for maximum outreach.
Nowadays, Facebook users in Bangladesh encounter such paid commercials quite frequently. The link below those contents would redirect users to Google Play for betting and gambling app downloads.
The steps after downloading the apps are simple and similar – recharge the virtual wallet from outlets of mobile financial services and take part in gambling.
However, most of the advertisements by the social media groups and pages just vanish after a certain time, according to police officers knowledgeable about cybercrime. Their recent cyber patrols found that some of the campaigns were targeting specific age-groups and regions of the country.
The advertisement techniques seem to be effective as more and more targeted audiences, mostly juveniles and youths in faraway districts, are stumbling upon these sites.
"Teenagers in villages are just addicted to phones," said a film director who travelled to his ancestral home in the northern district of Gaibandha last month. "Almost all of them have smartphones and they used to be busy browsing social media and YouTube. But during my latest visit, I found almost 90% of the youths gambling online."
The cinema director said he asked the youths how they came across the sites. Some of them said they saw various YouTube and Facebook ads.
A private television channel recently aired commercials of betting sites during a cricket match, despite the sites having multiple police cases against them.
Promotion of such a betting website named BetWinner by ace allrounder Shakib Al Hasan caused widespread criticism recently. Shakib eventually cancelled his agreement with the site as the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police launched an investigation against BetWinner.
Though Shakib claimed his agreement was with BetWinner News, the CID says the news section is just a camouflage for the main betting operations.
"Recently we have noticed a rise in money laundering through gambling and crime by gambling addicts. Legal action will be taken against BetWinner after investigation," a CID official told The Business Standard.
Contacted by TBS, Muhammad Rezaul Masud, special superintendent of police at Cyber Police Centre, CID, told TBS that some betting sites are luring youths to them with promise of direct income from gambling.
"Other sites are talking about making money by claiming themselves as investment sites or apps. They run campaigns by signing deals with popular YouTube channels. We arrested one such YouTuber a few days ago," he added.
The police official said the police have recently informed the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) and other government agencies about taking coordinated countermeasures.
A legal vacuum
There is no hard and fast law in the country that prohibits online gambling and betting, according to cybercrime officials and legal experts.
"Combating online gambling is challenging, as prosecuting the culprits who run the sites and reap financial gains is difficult," an additional superintendent of police at CID told TBS on condition of anonymity.
The Business Standard analysed nearly a dozen online gambling cases. In the case documents, police accused the suspects mostly under Sections 23, 24, 26, 30 and 35 of the Digital Security Act.
"If you check the sections of the DSA [Digital Security Act], you will find that those have nothing to do with online gambling. In fact, there is no updated law to fight gambling," the CID official added.
Section 23 of the DSA deals with "digital or electronic fraud", 24 deals with "identity fraud or personation", 26 deals with "unauthorised collection, use, etc, of identity information", 30 deals with "e-transaction without legal authority" and 35 deals with "abetment of committing an offence".
Barrister Taiful Seraj, lawyer of police headquarters, told TBS that the current gambling law does not cover online gambling as it is conventional and old.
"As far as I know, a draft law has been prepared especially focusing on online gambling and such illegal activities. The draft is now with the law ministry for vetting," he added.
According to the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU), the sites could have laundered a huge amount from the country. The unit also formed a committee to look into the matter.
"We have nearly completed a report mentioning the countermeasures. We will hold a meeting soon and notify policymakers about the report," an official on the committee told TBS.