Mahadev app row: Inside the dark ‘mirror’ world of gambling apps | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Mahadev app row: Inside the dark ‘mirror’ world of gambling apps

Nov 07, 2023 04:28 PM IST

Despite clear instructions from Centre that advertisements of online betting platforms are not permitted, many celebrities continue to endorse them

New Delhi: A majority of gambling websites blocked by the government on the recommendation of Enforcement Directorate (ED) on Sunday evening bear links to Mahadev Book platform, HT has learnt.

The ED alleged in its charge sheet filed last month that Mahadev Book “provides illegal betting facilities in different live games like card games, betting on cricket, badminton”. (Representative image.)
The ED alleged in its charge sheet filed last month that Mahadev Book “provides illegal betting facilities in different live games like card games, betting on cricket, badminton”. (Representative image.)

The ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) blocked 22 offshore and Indian gambling websites as part of continued crackdown on such apps and websites. MeitY had blocked 138 online betting apps and websites in February 2023.

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The latest list included mirror websites of at least two companies, including Lotus 365, which were blocked in February. Despite the blocking order being issued on Sunday night, until Tuesday afternoon, HT could access 19 of the 22 websites directly or through mirror websites without using a VPN. Some of the websites and their mirrors also get redirected to 7cric.com, a betting website that wasn’t on the blocking list.

A senior ED officer confirmed that all 22 websites were blocked on its request and are connected to Mahadev.

The financial crimes probe agency has alleged in its charge sheet filed last month that Mahadev Book “provides illegal betting facilities in different live games like poker, card games, chance games, betting on cricket, badminton, tennis, football etc, and also provide facility for playing a number of card games like Teen Patti, Poker, Dragon Tiger, Virtual Cricket games using cards etc., to even APPs allowing placing bets on different elections in India.”

The platform’s promoters, Sourabh Chandrakar, 28, and Ravi Uppal, 43, initially moved to the UAE but are now suspected to be moving between Sri Lanka, Australia, London and the Carribean, as per the ED.

“ED investigation has established that Ravi Uppal and Sourabh Chandrakar and their associates are remotely running this online betting syndicate without the necessity of remaining in India. They have successfully outsourced their entire dirty work of arranging benami shell bank accounts, hiring offices to run panels, advertising, hawala, laundering etc to willing ‘Panel’ partners by promising them a share of profit and blinding with vulgar display of their wealth,” the charge sheet states.

Several of the blocked websites, either directly, or through mirror websites list Indian addresses and phone numbers. For instance, tigerexch247.com.in lists a Hyderabad-based address, cricketbets9.com (a mirror site for cricketbet9.com) has a Chandigarh-based address, and cricketbuzz.com.in (a mirror site for cricketbuzz.com) has a Chennai based address.

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Cricketbuzz.com claims to have been registered by Mahadev Book under an e-gambling licence in 2016. Cricketbet9 is run by Rajat Wahi and provides online betting IDs for Mahadev Book. Reddy Book, tagged as “Biggest Book of Bengaluru” is listed on multiple betting exchanges including Lotus, SkyExchange, TigerExchange, JetExchange, and BetBook247.

Reddyannaofficial.in’s mirror sites redyanna-book.in and anna-reddy.co.in warn people from Telangana, Orissa, Assam, Sikkim and Nagaland to “leave the website immediately”.

Many of these websites are run by UK-based Flutter Entertainment’s subsidiary Betfair whose Betfair Live Line was blocked in February 2023. These include exchanges such as TigerExchange, and gambling websites like 11xplay. Lotus365 and Laser247 claim to be legal gambling websites by citing gambling licences issued in Curaçao. Multiple websites list “Restricted Territories” but India is not there in any of these lists.

Like many other websites and apps on the list, the Mahadev Book runs multiple websites and operates closed groups on chat apps.

Of the 22 listed websites, many of them are mirrors or each other, such as mahadevbook.live andmahadevbookonline.com; fairplay.in and fairplay.io; lotus365.com and loturs365.in; and laser247.com and laserbook247.com.

Under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, MeitY is required to give the exact URLs that need to be blocked. This is because two completely different entities might own the .com and .net websites. For instance, Meta launched its microblogging platform on threads.net because someone else owned threads.com. If MeitY wants Meta’s Threads to be blocked, it will have to specify the URL.

Specific URLs are required because there are many websites that have similar names. For instance, Times Internet runs a cricket-only website called cricbuzz.com. On Sunday, MeitY ordered the blocking of a URL called cricketbuzz.com. It always has to be specific else the legitimate cricbuzz.com might get blocked.

It is this need for specificity that allows mirror websites to create a whack-a-mole situation. Both fairplay.in and fairplay.io were blocked. But the betting portal remains available on thefairplay.io and fair-play.com.in.

“The betting websites provide a contact number, and this number can only be contacted over WhatsApp only,” as per the charge sheet. Their main call centre is in UAE and employs around 1,000 WhatsApp users. “ Most of the employees are from Chhattisgarh,” as per the document that HT has a copy of.

Reddy Anna, Mahadev Book, and Lotus365 continue to have social media accounts across Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram and WhatsApp. A Mahadev Book Instagram account has more than 79,000 followers while another has more than 19,000 followers. An Instagram account named lotus365world has more than 149,000 followers. This issue was also raised by the IT Parliamentary Standing Committee in Mumbai last month to which Koo had said that their platform does not allow such ads, but there is no ban on such companies having user accounts and posting on the platform, HT had reported.

ED says that Mahadev began operations in 2019-20 but its reach among users saw a huge increased during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and continued to grow since then. ED alleged that during February 2023, 200 crore cash was spent on Chandrakar’s lavish wedding in Dubai.

“Mahadev Book App is running a franchise type model in which Panel is outsourced in 70-30% profit sharing ratio. Panel operator is entirely responsible for receipt and payment of money and managing coins of the assigned User-IDs,” reads the charge sheet.

The ministry of information and broadcasting has issued four advisories since June last year to newspapers, news channels, entertainment channels, publishers of online news and current affairs content, online advertisement intermediaries (like Google and Facebook), and social media platforms to not advertise online betting platforms. Despite that, at least one publication, Outlook, ran a brand placement for gold365.com and 11xplay on October 12, 2023. Both these websites were blocked on Sunday.

Despite these clear instructions from the central government that advertisements of online betting platforms are not permitted, many celebrities continue to endorse them. Actors Suniel Shetty, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Kajal Aggarwal and Neha Sharma, and rapper Raftaar are visible on the Lotus365 websites, while Vivek Oberoi is visible in the Instagram stories of Reddy Book.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Neeraj Chauhan, senior associate editor with the National Political Bureau of Hindustan Times, writes on security, terrorism, corruption, laundering, black money, narcotics, and related policy matters while covering MHA, ED, CBI, NIA, IB, CVC, NHRC, CAG, Income Tax department, etc.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Aditi covers technology policy, online free speech, privacy, cybersecurity, and surveillance.

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