By Claudio Marinelli, Operations Coordinator pro tempore, INTERPOL Financial Crimes and Anti-Corruption Centre
The increased involvement of transnational organised crime in illegal betting and match-fixing has made corruption in sport a global threat affecting the security of people worldwide. Organised criminal groups, which are often highly organised and operate across multiple jurisdictions, actively use illegal betting as a means of generating massive profits and benefit from limited risks of detection. Online betting platforms present additional challenges for police, as they have intensified the international dimension of sports betting, making betting on matches anywhere in the world extremely easy and accessible.
In the light of ever-increasing globalisation and digitalisation, coupled with a huge influx of money in professional sport, illegal betting requires a coordinated global response. As the world’s largest international police organisation with 195 members, INTERPOL is uniquely placed to enable worldwide law enforcement agencies to work together beyond borders to tackle corruption in sport and has developed a number of initiatives to do that. The organisation’s activities targeting illegal betting include operational response, analytical support and capacity building.
In terms of operational work, in 2007 INTERPOL launched Operation SOGA (short for SOccer GAmbling), which targets illegal betting and related money laundering. It is a regular campaign timed to coincide with major international soccer events, when the international criminal networks behind illegal betting are particularly active due to high betting turnover. Suspected illegal bookmakers, illegal bettors, and money launderers are identified following intensive research and intelligence exchange between participating countries, and are arrested in a simultaneous crackdown, hitting criminal syndicates hard.
The ninth wave of Operation SOGA was carried out from November 2022 to January 2023 under the auspices of INTERPOL’s Joint Task Force for the World Cup Qatar 2022. SOGA IX saw thousands of specialised officers across 19 countries target organised crime groups looking to profit from illegal betting and related money laundering.
Due to the commitment of law enforcement authorities on the ground, the operation led to 1,400 raids and 1,200 arrests. Authorities of participating countries also seized USD 2 million in cash and bank account funds, USD 76 million in digital betting records, as well as computers, mobile phones, credit cards, luxury cars, jewellery and handbags.
As an example of coordinated efforts carried out by participating officers within the framework of SOGA IX, the Hong Kong Police Force neutralised several illegal-bookmaking syndicates, detaining hundreds of suspects. Additionally, Italian law enforcement authorities conducted numerous targeted checks of betting points, which resulted in administrative sanctions for illegal betting activities amounting to EUR 3 million.
Investigators identified several trends during the operation, such as a confirmed preference for online betting, with criminals taking full advantage of financial technology, including the use of international betting websites and online bank accounts; lower amounts being wagered to avoid detection; and that men under 40 were considered the typical profile to watch.
Year after year, INTERPOL’s Operation SOGA has highlighted the importance of collective mobilisation across various countries for tackling organised crime groups operating on a global scale. To date, nine SOGA operations have resulted in 20,300 arrests, seizures of USD 64 million in cash and the closure of some 4,000 illegal betting dens, which handled more than USD 7.3 billion worth of bets.
Operation SOGA IX is the first wave of the initiative to be coordinated under the aegis of INTERPOL’s Financial Crime and Anti-Corruption Centre (IFCACC), launched in 2022 with a view to centralising the international response to transnational financial crime and corruption. SOGA IX has also benefited from the global outreach support of the Asia-Pacific Expert Group on Organised Crime (APEG) and the INTERPOL Match Fixing Task Force (IMFTF).
The IMFTF forms the focus of INTERPOL’s operational response in the area of match-fixing and corruption in sport, bringing together law enforcement agencies around the world to tackle these crimes. The Task Force has around 100 member units, with more than 150 National Points of Contact worldwide. It focuses on sharing experiences and best practices and now represents the largest global network of investigators dealing with sport corruption and illegal betting.
Other specific tools in the area of illegal betting developed by INTERPOL are available to law enforcement worldwide. INTERPOL allows its member countries to share intelligence and information securely, and crosscheck data via Project ETICA dedicated to data collection on sport corruption. INTERPOL’s Financial Crime Analysis File (FinCAF) serves to identify suspicious patterns of activity and track down individuals and groups involved in illegal betting, helping law enforcement to gather additional intelligence to enlarge domestic investigations.
INTERPOL has also coordinated operations codenamed “HAECHI” under a project to tackle cyber-enabled financial crime. Along with other types of cyber-enabled fraud such as romance scams, HAECHI targeted money laundering associated with illegal online betting. The results of the three waves of the operation (2020-2022) confirm that transnational organised crime groups, including illegal betting syndicates, exploit the borderless nature of the Internet to extract millions from their victims before funnelling the illicit cash to bank accounts across the globe, or concealing it in virtual assets.
In addition to the operational and analytical frameworks, INTERPOL carries out a joint capacity building and training project with the International Olympic Committee to combat competition manipulation. The project offers tailored training courses, workshops and webinars for law enforcement, government agencies, sports, betting operators and regulators, to address competition manipulation and create a global network of practitioners.
Thus, INTERPOL has been playing an important role in combatting illegal betting and promoting integrity in sport though information sharing, development of best practices, and implementation of targeted operational actions. In the coming decades, law enforcement will face an increasingly sophisticated criminal landscape, as technological advances will further push the boundaries between the physical and the digital. In order to counter the constantly emerging threats, INTERPOL will continue to support its member countries’ efforts in detecting and disrupting criminal activities, including illegal betting operations, and provide police with a coordinated tactical response.