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Set play? Dark web match-fixing in sport

Set play? Dark web match-fixing in sport

Posted on 23 July 2019 by Joe Hancock and Mark Tibbs

Match-fixing has proven to be a big problem in sport and criminals are now turning to the dark web to advertise these services to unscrupulous gamblers. The question is, what is on offer on these sites and are they genuine, or are they simply scams?

Dishonestly determining outcomes of matches before they are played is not a new problem sport faces. In 2013, Europol claimed to have identified an organised crime syndicate based in Asia which was co-ordinating a huge match-fixing operation implicating more than 400 match officials, club officials, players, and criminals. More recently, in the lead-up to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, FIFA dropped a Saudi Arabian football referee after he was banned for a match-fixing attempt in his home country.

As part of a recent research paper looking at threats to the 2018 football World Cup, the MDR Cyber team discovered several match-fixing ‘hidden services’ on the dark web. These services advertise insider information and fixed matches to gamblers. But who’s willing to take the risk of buying?

The lure of match-fixing sites

International law enforcement agencies have made great progress in recent years by disrupting and arresting dark web users. Despite this, many criminals are drawn to the dark web for its relative anonymity and perceived safety from the authorities.

Similarly, the rise in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies—which do not link users’ identities to transactions—has meant more anonymous means of taking and making payments for illicit purposes. The development and adoption of these technologies have encouraged criminal activity to migrate online and, arguably, reach a wider customer base than ever before.

What’s on offer:

The dark web services we discovered offered insider information and, in some instances, fully fixed matches for a variety of sports, including football, tennis, and ice hockey. Sites varied in sophistication some were rudimentary but others displayed their own graphics and logos, indicating that effort went into their design. In one instance, a service provider operated their site on both the dark and clear web.

Figure 1 - Payment options for a dark web match-fixing site

Prices varied from $99 for information on single games to $1,500 for two to three guaranteed fixed matches. Higher odds (and, therefore, larger potential pay-outs) also attracted higher up-front costs. Payments were largely accepted via cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, Monero, Ethereum and Ripple, presumably for anonymity, although one site accepted PayPal. Some of the sites also offered to take payment via escrow services as a way of assuring customers that they were not scams.

One of the more sophisticated-looking sites claimed to represent a global group of 58 former athletes, referees and sport agents who collected ‘common resources to organize and fix matches’. This site claimed that the cost to fix a single match was a minimum of $25,000 and could be up to $800,000.

Figure 2 - dark web match-fixing site home page

The odds of authenticity

Of course, it is difficult to tell whether these services or their claims are legitimate. The incentives for advertising fixes widely are unclear. It could be argued that involving more bettors in a fix will alter odds, making for a less favourable bet and increasing the chances of being caught. As an attempt at 'proof', some sites offered redacted screenshots of purported successful bets, and one even offered a ‘free tip’ on a tennis match. MDR Cyber could not verify the authenticity of the claims.

Success of sites is no gamble

What does the existence of these sites tell us? If genuine, they indicate that match-fixing is organised and widespread throughout geographies and sports. This is supported by recent research which showed that more than a third of surveyed athletes believed they had played in a fixed match and a fifth were aware of a fixed game in their team during the past 12 months. If the figure of $800,000 is anything to go by, it indicates that the practice can attract serious money.

Even if they are fake, the emergence of these sites indicates there are enough gamblers out there interested in match fixing to make the sites worthwhile—and enough fraudsters ready to take their money.

MDR Cyber is part of Mishcon de Reya’s complementary non-legal services. We help our clients, including those in sports, solve cybersecurity problems, investigate cyber-enabled frauds and work with our legal teams to recover funds and disrupt cybercrime.

To find out more about the team email mark.tibbs@mishcon.com.

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