Mystery prize vending machine games can be fraudulent, say police, Latest Singapore News - The New Paper

Mystery prize vending machine games can be fraudulent, say police

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Police say ban on vending machines due to possible fraudulent practices

Over the past year, visitors to shopping malls would have seen vending machines filled with plainly packaged boxes and the promise of expensive items to be won.

But contrary to their advertising, these machines dispensing mystery prizes for a fee may not stock any items of "meaningful value", the police said yesterday.

The possibility of such fraudulent practices was among the reasons behind the police declaring such machines illegal earlier this month, forcing operators in malls and arcades islandwide to abruptly shut them down.

In an e-mail response to queries, the police said dispensing random mystery prizes for cash is essentially a game of chance.

Such machines have been proliferating in Singapore and could promote gambling, including among children, the police statement said.

Businesses, however, are allowed to conduct public lotteries to promote the sale of any product or service, subject to conditions laid out in gambling legislation, the statement added.

At least four operators set up shop in malls, arcades and retail outlets in the past year, charging between $5 and $10 for a box containing a mystery prize.

Punters are lured in with the promise of big-ticket items like smartphones and gaming consoles, but most boxes contain low-value items such as eye masks or USB chargers.

Lawyers said what determines if something is considered gambling is whether the mechanism used is a game of chance or skill.

The law is broad enough to apply to other forms of chance-based prizes, such as vending machines that dispense capsules containing random toys and trinkets, and mystery boxes sold online, they said.

But authorities are unlikely to enforce it without reason.

"Something would become regulated only when it becomes a problem... in this case (the machines) have been operating on a big scale at malls, where there is easy access to vulnerable groups like children," said criminal lawyer Rajan Supramaniam.

Addiction specialists said the lure of a jackpot prize is what separates the mystery box machines, often decorated with photographs of winners holding items like laptops, from other products sold in a random manner.

Mr Billy Lee, founder of Blessed Grace Social Services, which runs a support group for gambling addicts, said: "These machines are just another form of gambling - the possibility of striking a big jackpot is what will drive a person to continue to put money in, just to get that elusive prize."

The authorities' move to crack down on mystery box machines has been called arbitrary by some, given that other forms of lottery-based products can potentially produce the same addictive behaviour.

Dr Thomas Lee, medical director and consultant psychiatrist at Resilienz Clinic, said it may come down to value.

"Those capsule machines usually cost only 50 cents or $1, you know roughly what you're going to get, and items are mostly of the same value," he noted, while in this case users may end up spending up to $10 on items of lower value.