‘Too many lives have been destroyed’ - the dangers of online gambling

Smartphones and laptops have made online gambling easier. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Smartphones and laptops have made online gambling easier. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire - Credit: PA

By touching a phone screen, or pushing a button from the comfort of a living room, what started as a bet can today easily spiral into a gambling addiction. And regulation is struggling to keep up with the dangers of online gambling. Lauren Cope reports.

David Armstrong, who lost thousands of pounds while in the grips of a betting addiction. Photo: Sony

David Armstrong, who lost thousands of pounds while in the grips of a betting addiction. Photo: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

This weekend, we told the story of Steve Girling, a man from Costessey who pleaded guilty to stealing £1m from his employer to feed his addiction to online gambling.

He said that gambling became a way of self medicating to relieve other problems, and warned how difficult it can be to escape once in its grips.

He is not alone.

Gambling has never been easier - bets can be placed from our phones, or sitting on a laptop infront of the television.

The rise in popularity is reflected in national charity GamCare's annual statistics for 2017/18, with 55pc of its callers discussing issues with online gambling. In 2014/15, it was 47pc.

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It appears to be replacing traditional betting. In Norwich, the number new gambling premises licenses handed out by the city council fell from nine in 2010 to just two this year, up to October.

A Norwich man who works for a Europe-based online gambling website said while he believed there was a difference between a bet and a gamble, there were areas of the industry he felt uneasy with.

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'You usually get two types of customer, ones who might spend a massive amount of money on Manchester United, generally quite good customers because they won't win much, and then those who will bet on small sports and find an edge to make money in other ways,' he said.

'If you think someone is an idiot you will up their limit 10 times. That's where there is a bit of an ethical issue. They won't know it's happening, but when you know someone is spending money you will invariably up their limit, keep them playing and trying to win more money. You can spot a customer who doesn't know what's happening.'

He said, at a previous employer, the team noted that a 17-year-old living in mainland Europe who had consistently bet large sums suddenly stopped. They later discovered he had been using his sister's credit card, and took his life after losing a particularly big amount.

While there are regulations to protect consumers, and identify where their money is coming from, they are not always adhered to.

In February, William Hill was fined £6.2m by the Gambling Commission for not doing enough to prevent money laundering and harm to customers. In one case, a customer was allowed to deposit £514,000 over 14 months, because staff assumed he earned £365,000 after one conversation.

In reality, he earned £30,000 and stole from his employer.

And last week, the commission fined three online casino companies almost £14m for not having 'effective safeguards'.

It comes after the government agreed to reduce the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) - often slot machines in betting shops and pubs - from £100 to £2, pledging to introduce the change in April instead of October after outcry.

David Armstrong, 71, said his addiction to FOBTs cost him £15,000 in one afternoon, and while he welcomed the change, he said it came far too late.

'It's a good thing but they have dragged their feet,' he said. 'It's too late for the people who have been destroyed and the many people who have committed suicide over these machines. It has really come too late because there's too many lives been destroyed.'

He said FOBTs were a story of 'financial devastation and suicide', and said he believed any family who lost someone to suicide over gambling addictions should be given compensation.

He said every day was a 'living hell' when in the grips of the addiction, and said many people online were facing the same misery.

Marc Etches, charity Gamble Aware's chief executive, said there were 340,000 problem gamblers in the country, and a further 1.75m at risk. He said problem gamblers often gambled in 'up to seven different ways'.

'This is a particular concern when you also consider the fact that there are no limits to stakes and prizes with online gambling and the use of credit cards is permitted,' he said.

Norwich South MP Clive Lewis said current gambling regulations were 'not up to the job of properly protecting people'.

When the cut in FOBTs stakes was announced, then secretary of state for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said: 'These machines are a social blight and prey on some of the most vulnerable in society, and we are determined to put a stop to it and build a fairer society for all.'

For more information visit BeGambleAware.org

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