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Operators of illegal betting apps moving from Dubai to Sri Lanka

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A benign, cheaper Sri Lanka beckon the shadowy betting rings. As Dubai turns too hot for comfort amid the glare of investigation on the online gambling empire Mahadev, some of the other faceless operators of illegal betting apps are moving to Sri Lanka.Some of the offshore call centres and offices which are the backbone for these apps – manned by people who interact with the agents in India, maintain the servers, reconcile accounts and run the books – are being set up in Lanka.

An army of staff, attending the multiple websites floated by a betting syndicate, largely cut off from the outside world, is huddled together in villas to quietly run the show.

“Lanka is struggling to overcome its economic crisis. Such bungalows are available in and around Colombo at just a fraction of what it would cost in Dubai. More importantly, after the arrests linked to Mahadev, and the Dubai CID (criminal investigation department handling complex crimes) turning active, the syndicates are feeling the heat in UAE, at least for now,” the source told ET.

Relocating to Safe Haven

UAE’s stronger ties with India and the recent promptness in sharing of information have unnerved the players who have sensed the change in milieu.The shift to Sri Lanka, by other illegal apps similar to Mahadev, began about four to five months ago. “Some of them are linked to Mahadev, and are using the platforms under a different name – having entered into a kind of white-labelling arrangement with the group,” said the person.Besides the lure of an inexpensive destination, it is perceived that the comparatively ambiguous gambling laws of the island nation and its close trade links with India may also make it a convenient base for running discreet back offices.

The Enforcement Directorate, which has a whiff of the developments, is also trying to figure out whether such migration to Sri Lanka is a full scale departure of unauthorised betting syndicates from the Emirates or a relocation of select manpower and operations in the face of the ongoing Mahadev probe.

The ED, sources said, is looking into the footprints of the Mahadev Online Book app associates in Sri Lanka. The investigating agency is probing whether the South Asian country has been on Mahadev’s radar for growing the illegal betting empire or the fugitive promoters have been planning to move their entire base to the crisis-ridden country. In the course of the probe, ED has found that a Pakistani betting outfit, linked to the Indian group, was allegedly a prominent sponsor in a Lanka cricket tournament.

“Lanka already has a base with a network of panel operators supporting betting operations. It has the backing of the D-gang with Dawood Ibrahim’s younger brother Mustaqueem Ali Kaskar managing the operations. Call centres are operational and the gang not only provides protection but also helps in conducting the entire operations through hawala operators in India,” said a senior official privy to the investigation.

The betting money received from gamblers in India and elsewhere are moved abroad through the irregular foreign exchange channels run by hawala operators. “Often, the money transferred is used to buy stable cryptos like USDT which are later sold to convert into preferred currency,” said another person.

ED’s application before the court also names the foreign portfolio investors which were used to route the money back to India.

ED’s findings into the Mahadev Book have brought to the fore the modus operandi of illegal online betting apps which are run on a franchise-type model in which the offshore backroom boys deal with the panels and distributors to collect funds from gamblers with money deposited in fake bank accounts. The ED probe showed that the Mahadev owners were raising ₹450 crore every month using the tiered network.

Lanka as an alternative base emerged more prominently after November when UAE authorities had arrested one of the promoters of Mahadev following a Interpol Red Corner Notice (RCN) issued against the person.

ED had sent a request through the competent authority to extradite him. But some of the masterminds have renounced their Indian passports to buy the citizenship of Vanuatu, a country in the South Pacific. “The agency is probing if a similar setup was being made in Sri Lanka,” said an agency official.

Along with Lanka, the Mahadev promoters had at one point also explored moving their operations from Dubai to the Republic of Zimbabwe which doesn’t have a law that explicitly bans online betting. However, sources said this may not have eventually materialised.

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