Gambling Addiction: Calls to Gambling Crisis Hotlines Soar

NBC New York
Gambling Addiction: Calls to Gambling Crisis Hotlines Soar
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As mobile betting apps turn people’s phones into pocket-sized casinos, gamblers are also putting their phones to use for a more traditional purpose.

To reach out for help.

An I-Team analysis of call data in New Jersey shows an steep spike in outreach to 800-GAMBLER, the state’s hotline to deal with compulsive gambling and addiction.

According to numbers supplied by The Council on Compulsive Gambling of NJ and the New Jersey Health Department, calls to 800-GAMBLER have increased by nearly 200 percent, from just 49 per month in Fiscal Year 2018 to 147 calls per month this year. 

The data suggests internet and mobile betting is driving much of the increase with 639 calls about online casinos and sportsbooks in Fiscal Year 2022. That represents more than a 300% increase over Fiscal Year 2019.

One problem gambler, who called 800-GAMBLER in 2021 and requested the I-Team obscure his identity, said he became hooked on mobile casino betting after decades of working and playing in traditional casinos without a problem.

"It was the availability. It was the ease of access and honestly it was the marketing," he said. "I tried to step away a few times and inevitably I would get a text within three or four days with a bonus offer and I’d be like, well it’s free money."

Felicia Grondin, Executive Director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of NJ, said she expects the wave of crisis calls to swell further, partly because of relentless advertising campaigns by online betting companies battling it out for market share.

"This crisis is just developing," said Grondin. "We’re just recognizing that there is a problem. Every day we have more and more people calling us."

This year, the NJ Council on Compulsive Gambling partnered with YouGov to conduct an online poll of gambling habits in New Jersey. The study, using a statewide representative sample of about a thousand New Jerseyans, found only 13 percent of bettors feel traditional television and radio ads strongly influence their wagering behavior. But 28 percent said they are strongly influenced by the ease of betting on mobile phones and 30 percent said they’re strongly influenced by individualized incentives like free credits and "no risk" bets.

The survey also found the youngest legal bettors are engaging in some of the riskiest behavior when they can least afford it. Thirty-six percent of NJ bettors between 21 and 29 years old consider betting activities “a major source of income,” according to the survey. 

"In no way are we equipped to deal with this problem that is really just surfacing at this time," Grondin said. 

Alan Feldman, an expert on responsible gambling at the UNLV International Gaming Institute, said he finds promises of "free" or "no-risk" bets to be troubling.

"In gambling, calling anything risk free is just dishonest," Feldman said. "To suggest that something is risk-free, in my mind is just reckless."

But Feldman also cautioned against concluding we're in the midst of a compulsive gambling crisis based on higher call volume at problem gambling helplines.

"We’ve seen hundreds of millions of dollars poured in to promoting these numbers and the calls go up. You’d almost think it would be ridiculous if they didn’t," he said.

In Connecticut, calls to the state’s problem gambling hotline (888-789-7777) are up an average of 125 percent since online gambling was legalized there in October of 2021.

In response to a public records request, New York’s Office of Addiction Services and Supports, which oversees the NYS HOPELINE, could not immediately provide uniform data about call volumes related to problem gambling. 

The American Gaming Association (AGA), a trade group which represents some of the biggest online betting companies, says mobile platforms are designed with customer safety in mind, including tools that allow players to impose restrictions on their own betting and the amount of time they spend on gambling apps.

"American adults have never had better access to legal, regulated gaming and the robust consumer protections that come with it," said Casey Clark, AGA Senior Vice President. "Mobile gaming uniquely empowers patrons to set limits, provides operators with insight into consumer behavior, and gives regulators greater visibility into operations."

But some critics have argued online casinos and sportsbooks shouldn’t leave it to problem gamblers to set their own limits. Instead, they say internet gaming sites should be required to use their customer analytics to trigger mandatory cooling-off periods if wagering patterns suggest a player’s gambling has become disordered.

Earlier this year, Sam A. Antar, a compulsive gambler who has twice been convicted of defrauding investors and using the proceeds to make casino wagers, filed a lawsuit against BetMGM and related companies. Antar claims the online gaming platforms "engaged in predatory gambling practices by maintaining analytic tools, software and player tracking data ... to continually monetize and take advantage of his robust gambling behavior."

"Could you imagine playing blackjack at a casino and while I’m playing blackjack at the casino, I’m gambling online as well. I did that," Antar said.

Antar’s attorney, Margo Zemel said BetMGM had an "enhanced duty" to interrupt her client’s excessive wagering because – he was a known problem gambler who had previously spent time on New Jersey’s exclusion list – which has the names and photos of people who have been temporarily banned from betting at the state’s casinos.

"They know exactly how much time a person spends on the online game. They can track everything and they knew Sam was such a player,” Zemel said. "We definitely have our ears wide open the option of turning this into a class action. Let’s face it, Sam was not the only one."

BetMGM has not yet responded to Antar’s complaint in court. The I-Team reached out to BetMGM and related companies but did not hear back.

The AGA pushed back sharply on the idea that player analytics have been used to entice riskier bets from compulsive gamblers.

"The notion that legal operators are using data to encourage problematic play is categorically false," Clark said. "Unlike the predatory, illegal market, we have a vested interest in building long-term, responsible relationships with customers."

In 2020, a report by the Rutgers Center for Gambling Studies found that people, like Antar, who return to wagering after previously spending time on an exclusion list  generally "returned to betting and spending with an intensity similar to pre-exclusion levels of play." The study recommended New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Enforcement require online betting companies to take more responsibility for monitoring known problem gamblers and intervening if their behavior becomes too risky. But the authors acknowledged the highest-intensity bettors are often the most profitable.

"In 2019, 5% of online players made 75% of the bets and wagered 65% of the money on gambling websites," the study noted. "Self-excluders are generally among high-intensity bettors; barring them from play will typically result in a significant loss of revenue for operators so there is little incentive to enact or police a self-ban absent regulatory consequences."

The NJ Division of Gaming Enforcement did not immediately respond to the I-Team’s request for comment.