SII Focus 23rd March 2015

The ‘ghost game’ phenomenon

By Jake Marsh, the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) 

 

So-called ‘ghost games’ have recently been a hot topic in the area of match-fixing, as criminals have realised that it is far easier to create a corrupt fixture that doesn’t exist than it is to pay athletes to fix a result. For example, SBOBET recently paid out on FC Slutsk’s 2-1 ‘friendly win’ against fellow Belarus side Shakhter Soligorsk – however, the match didn’t actually take place. Jake Marsh has been working in anti-corruption for ten years and has been involved in numerous sports integrity investigations. He explores this relatively new phenomenon, and what can be done to counteract the threat that it presents to sport’s integrity.

Introduction 

From the outset, it should be made clear that the ‘Ghost Game’ phenomenon is inherently linked to corrupt and illegal activity by criminals seeking to defraud the betting industry and its customers. These are not the same as ‘fake’ matches, whereby two teams of players actually take to the field but in reality are not the real players of the actual clubs. Ghost games are so-called for a simple reason – they do not exist. No players, referees, substitutes or coaches took to the field of play, and no spectators were in the stands. The two actual physical teams may have been many miles away from where the match was reported to have been played.

The match reportedly played between the Portuguese and Spanish lower league sides Freamunde and Ponferradina in summer 2014 was not a ghost match, it was a fake match. Real people actually played a football match, but they were not the actual players of one of the teams.  Having said this, fake matches – as with ghost games – demonstrate the constant innovation on the part of criminals to adapt their modus operandi in order to confound the betting markets and law enforcement.

It appears that football is not the only sport to have been affected by the tampering of information to record events that have not occurred. Horse endurance racing recently uncovered a scandal whereby the governing body’s race records had been falsified to include statistics for races that had never taken place. It is not clear what the motive was for the alleged fraud, but it is doubtful the ghost races are linked to betting.

While some are calling ghost games the new scourge of football, this phenomenon is not in the same dimension as ‘standard’ betting fraud driven match-fixing. There have only been a few proven instances of ghost games although in 2011, it was alleged that several international friendlies played did not exist and suspected instances in European countries have happened since. There are, however, critical links between standard match-fixing and ghost games that if left unchecked, could see the ghost game problem grow. Certainly, any arguments of it being a victimless crime can be easily dismissed by the bettors and bookmakers who are defrauded, and the clubs whose names are dragged into the mud. The illicit funds gained by the individuals conducting the fraud are undoubtedly used to fund other types of crime and subsequent betting fraud.

How can it even happen?

In the absence of live television coverage or video streaming, betting scouts or spotters are employed to report key events during a match, so that bookmakers can adjust the price advertised to bettors as a game unfolds. It may be hard to believe for those in other financial services or outside the betting industry, but many lower-level matches are covered by just one low-paid betting scout whom the betting companies rely on for the information on which they base their odds. To the uninitiated, this may seem akin to the betting companies entrusting their business and brand to a subcontractor who has no clear corporate buy-in or job security, and whose background may have only been cursorily checked. In effect, the person right at the front-end of the business is essentially an unqualified amateur and is ‘turned’, for want of a better phrase, into a double-agent.

Furthermore, the sums being made from ghost games will be a drop in the ocean compared to the size of the overall market and will be much harder to detect; thus making it an even more attractive criminal endeavour. Criminals look for the vulnerabilities in new areas and would appear to believe they have found a vulnerability in the betting data model in its reliance on very poorly paid individuals who are there providing minute-by-minute or second-by-second information. Perhaps in an even more stark way than typical match-fixing, ghost games exemplify the criminals’ realisation of these weaknesses in sport betting and how to capitalise on them.

It would appear that the ghost game fraud, at present, mainly involves eastern European criminals who are then utilising the South East Asian betting markets and other criminal types well-placed to manipulate them. The International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS) is aware that some current and former scouts have been involved in suspicious activities for several years, such as deliberately falsifying or delaying reporting of match actions such as goals, free-kicks, corners and general attacking play. Fraudulent scout activity – such as delayed reporting of goals, for example by 30 seconds – can occur so that accomplices or handlers can place bets and effectively take advantage of insider information on what is happening in the match, before the rest of the betting market knows¹. In reality, this can be fairly easy to pull off.

Corrupt scouts are also known to be involved in recruiting other scouts to conduct fraudulent activity. In the past year, problems with scouts have occurred in the Middle East and in Europe, and the ICSS has been informed of delayed reporting towards the end of 2014 in several matches. The ICSS is also aware that some former scouts, who have been connected to ghost games, have links to known Singaporean match-fixers.

So how are scouts becoming involved in this type of activity? Commonly, it is through bribery by criminals looking to take them under their wing, sometimes combined with some form of intimidation or threat. It can also be through opportunity, with former scouts realising their own unique position to influence bookmakers and allying this with criminal intent.

Typically, a scout will be paid around €50 by a betting data provider to cover a match, whereas a criminal may offer them €300-€500 to delay the reporting of goals. Scouts already under criminal control are also known to have become involved in driving this activity and in recruiting their own scout networks.

It would seem that over the past three years, scouts and criminals that control or work with them appear to have branched out from frauds such as delayed reporting and into ghost games. They have developed the know-how of misreporting match information into a co-ordinated operation of misreporting the whole match – from pre-match information and reports (such as team news) right through to ‘live’ match reporting and post-game statistics and even press reports.

The first identified ghost game that was believed to have been set up to profit on the betting markets was a supposed match between Turkmenistan U21 v. Maldives U21 on 16 January 2012, that ‘ended’ 3-2. The betting data service company, RunningBall, had a scout at the game monitoring the match, who advised that the match did exist. Enquiries revealed that neither the Maldives FA, nor the Turkmenistan FA, or the Football Association of Malaysia had any knowledge of this international friendly. The RunningBall scout advised that there were two teams who did play the match and that he believed the two teams were the U21 Maldives and U21 Turkmenistan teams. This matter was referred to the Royal Malaysian Police for further investigation, but to date no further information about this matter has been reported.

In 2014, the ICSS looked into reports of a friendly match ‘played’ in Armenia between Ulisses Yerevan FC and FC Gandzasar on 29 January 2014 and that ended 0-2.  Sources who spoke to the two clubs confirmed that both teams were having training camps that day but in different locations, 300km from each other, and that they did not play the friendly match that had been reported. In the lead up to the match, the fixture had been listed on a website that purported to be an official website of one of the clubs involved – in fact the website was a fake that was set up by an individual who used to be employed as a betting scout.

The pre-match betting markets did not show anything suspicious (such as strong support for Ulisses to lose) and it was very difficult to verify whether any live markets were actually offered. It was also difficult to ascertain whether money was paid out on the match by any bookmakers. Having said this, the fact this match did not exist indicates that those behind its reporting online were likely to have attempted to profit from it in the betting markets by taking advantage of their inside information. That there appeared to be no suspicious betting activity may be a sign that it was a failed attempt, or was highly localised from a geographic perspective.

In February 2015, it was reported in the press that another ghost match had been identified between Slutsksakhar Slutsk v. FC Shakhtyor Soligorsk; a match between the two Belarusian sides allegedly played on 3 February in Minsk. Reports of the match indicated that with only minutes left, Shakhtyor were winning 0-1 and had also missed a penalty. But then Slutsksakhar scored two goals in the final moments of the game to become unlikely winners; they were clear underdogs before the match, having only just been promoted to the Premier League.

FC Shakhtyor later claimed in a statement that their website had been hacked and misinformation added regarding the supposed match. Sources within Slutsksakhar apparently also confirmed that they had no knowledge of the game; indeed they were listed on online football results sites as having played their last game on 1 February, only two days before. SBOBET and Bet365 both took bets on this match and it is believed that they traded normally until the match was allegedly over. Although SBOBET were suspicious of the fixture, an email purportedly from FC Slutsk along with the false match report posted on the Shakter website convinced the bookmaker that the match was regular, so it paid out on bets. Both of the Belarusian Premier League clubs denied any involvement in the fixture and the Belarus FA reported the case to the police and UEFA.

Ghost games have several characteristics in common. In a similar vein to scenarios the ICSS is seeing in standard match-fixing, those organising ghost games have favoured friendly fixtures. Like match-fixing, the reasons are clear – the teams are from lower level leagues or in low profile fixtures that still generate interest from the betting markets.

In the digital age, criminals have simply diversified their tactics when defrauding the betting markets, now by also using the companies’ own tools and operational weaknesses against them. For the criminals, this is much less labour intensive than standard match-fixing, inordinately cheaper and easier to pull off and less risky in terms of discovery. Yet the rewards will still be worthwhile, so long as the bookmakers pay out.

Match venue changes are often reported around ghost games and could act as an early warning sign to bookmakers and football authorities. The Belarus incident featured this, with reports at the last minute that the venue was to be moved a considerable distance. This often means any legitimate betting scouts that were planning to cover it then decide not to, due to logistics, effectively removing the possibility of the match being covered and therefore its mythical action to be solely reported on by the fraudsters who have invented it. Finally, as mentioned earlier, the most common characteristic brings us back to the betting scouts themselves and those that previously had this job that are now using their ‘expertise’ for illegal benefit.

So what can be done? 

Ghost games and the type of fraud they represent are an example of the risk presented by the dysfunctional and highly vulnerable global sport betting system, which is open to manipulation. Most sport betting, especially out of South East Asia, is either illegal or under regulated by permissive governments. Combined with the activities of corrupt betting, as well as scouts and criminals in regions such as Eastern Europe, it becomes evident how the highly regulated European betting market can be bypassed to pull off this fraud, even when it involves teams from Europe.

Until there is an enforceable global standard for the fair and transparent operation of global sport betting, criminals and opportunists will continue to corrupt the system and sport will continue to be the victim of uncontrolled global gambling on such fraud. Any global standard should include the possibility of establishing strong regulation over the way information and data on betting is gathered and exchanged between stakeholders, including bookmakers and the football authorities.

Perhaps the betting industry could take a look at itself in terms of its information and intelligence flows in order to protect itself and its customers even further. Standardised business integrity processes for employing scouts could be strengthened, along with better oversight of their activities. This will cost money, but represents a long-term solution as opposed to short-term negligence.

This is all part of creating a hostile environment for fixers to operate in and so those who commit betting fraud know there will be consequences. While these weaknesses exist and there are those willing to exploit them, no country or jurisdiction will be immune to the problem of ghost games.

ICSS Profile Picture - JMA (3)

Jake Marsh

Head of Training & Youth Protection

International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS)

 

1. Editor’s note: when working for the Press Association, newspaper was placed around the section of the office responsible for providing the live feed to betting shops, to stop journalists from seeing the odds and quickly placing a bet before betting shops received the feed.

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