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PlayOLG was launched in 2015, but many are using it for the first time during an economic crisis.Hand-Out

Consumers have a bone to pick with Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp.

With the Ontario government ordering people to stay home as much as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic, more Ontarians are buying lottery tickets online. OLG is seeing “record traffic” as a surge of people register for PlayOLG accounts, primarily to purchase Lotto Max and Lotto 6/49 tickets.

Trouble is, many consumers are only learning the true cost of those online purchases when they receive their credit card bills weeks later. That’s when they learn that banks generally consider online lottery ticket sales to be cash-like transactions, meaning they’re processed as cash advances and subject to extra fees and interest that starts accruing from the date of purchase.

It’s an outrageous cash grab given that consumers are suddenly flocking online to avoid contracting a deadly illness. The prospect of extra charges and interest for online purchases never occurs to most folks because many have used credit cards to buy lottery tickets in stores without issue.

To be sure, this reflects poorly on banks that benefit from this practice. (Not all lenders allow credit cards to be used to buy lottery tickets.) Disclosures about cash advance costs tend to be buried in the fine print of credit card agreements, but that’s only part of the problem. Global payment networks, such as Visa and MasterCard, have rules requiring certain transactions, including online gambling, to be coded as cash-like transactions.

There’s also a mishmash of federal and provincial rules dealing with gambling. But none of that excuses OLG from failing to offer a lower-cost online payment option for consumers and being more explicit about the total costs of using plastic on its website.

Yes, gambling transactions, especially those conducted online, carry more risk. But there’s a big difference between people who spend their pocket money on lottery tickets and high-rollers who spend big at casinos or on gambling sites. For many, lottery tickets are a discretionary purchase at the cash register.

But not all retailers are selling lottery tickets during the pandemic. Yet lotteries haven’t been shut down. There have been some big jackpots recently, so why are people paying through the nose for online tickets?

“Because of COVID-19, people don’t want to go out in stores,” said Peter Browne, a semi-retired Sudbury resident. He normally buys lottery tickets in stores, but when he saw TV commercials touting the convenience of online sales, he decided to give it a try. “I said, why am I going down to the store and taking a chance when I could just do it online?”

On four occasions in April, he bought three Lotto Max tickets with Encore thinking his MasterCard would be billed $16 each time, or for $64 in total. But he later discovered that he was also on the hook for $20 in cash advance fees and $1.14 in interest.

“I thought that I was being scammed,” he said. After kicking up a fuss, his bank waived the cash-advance fees but still nicked him for the interest. While that’s annoying, he’s more vexed with OLG for not being clear-cut about the extra costs. He complained to OLG, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the Sudbury Star.

“People have to be warned,” Mr. Browne said. “They make it look so easy-peasy.”

OLG won’t say how many complaints it’s received in recent weeks, but it tweeted about the issue and penned its own letter to the newspaper, blaming banks for charging extra fees.

“PlayOLG does not charge fees for deposits made into a customer’s account,” OLG spokesman Tony Bitonti said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, adding customers should ask their bank about possible charges.

“Using a debit card to make deposits on PlayOLG may avoid such fees, but again customers should check with their financial institutions,” he added.

Trouble is, just two banks (Royal Bank of Canada and Toronto-Dominion Bank) support Interac Online for PlayOLG. And while debit services from Visa and MasterCard are also options, not all consumers are familiar with them. That makes credit cards the easiest option for most people.

It’s disingenuous for OLG to deflect blame when it is a Crown corporation with a public interest mandate. It must have stronger warnings on its website and advertisements to outline the full range of extra costs associated with online tickets. Those warnings also need to be easier to find on its website, as in right at the top in big, bold letters.

OLG should also offer a cheaper online payment option such as Interac e-Transfer, an account-to-account money movement service popular with consumers. Businesses are increasingly using it as an e-commerce solution.

Ontarians deserve better. PlayOLG was launched in 2015, but many are using it for the first time during an economic crisis. Failure to act now will only lead to bigger problems in the future. OLG is pushing deeper into online sales, and Ontario wants to become the first province to legalize internet gambling. Bill C-218, currently before the House of Commons, proposes to amend the Criminal Code to lift the ban on single-event sports betting.

The Ford government can’t afford to be feckless. OLG must enable Ontarians to make informed choices. Consumer protection in the gambling industry shouldn’t be left to chance.

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Tickers mentioned in this story

Study and track financial data on any traded entity: click to open the full quote page. Data updated as of 15/04/24 3:26pm EDT.

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Toronto-Dominion Bank
Royal Bank of Canada

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