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Online sports betting has soared over the pandemic

Gambling has long been one of Americans' favorite pastimes. And access to it has only gotten easier since 2018, when the Supreme Court overturned a decision that limited sports betting to Nevada. Ads and apps have been popping up everywhere since, even some featuring celebrities like Aaron Paul and Shaquille O'Neal.

But those ads can have a troubling effect, says Vineberg. Because while they may show people winning, “winners” are not who the advertisers are really trying to target.

“The client they’re after is the ‘me’ that's going to go to four different check-cashing places … and going to just try and make enough on the weekend in my bets to cover my butt by Monday.”

And it's only going to get more difficult for people like Vineberg. More than two dozen states have legalized sports betting in the past few years. And according to a report by the American Gaming Association, sports betting and iGaming revenue grew by double digit percentages in April from the previous year.

“The incidence of online gambling, and the severity of it, have increased considerably,” says Diana Gabriele, a gambling counselor at Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare (HDGH) in Windsor, Ont. in Canada. Ontario is the first province in Canada to regulate sports betting.

Gabriele adds the increased isolation during COVID-19 lockdowns hasn’t helped.

“As a result of that isolation, and the change in lifestyles and loss of employment, people became bored, they became strapped for money, they were looking for ways to make money easily,” she says.

“They were looking for entertainment.”

And entertainment they found. Gabriele explains that the rise of technology and “gamification” — the integration of video games into gambling platforms and vice versa — also increases the likelihood of people becoming addicted. It feels more rewarding when players can meet missions or tasks, earn loyalty points and bonuses or score highly in tournaments and leaderboards — and it keeps users engaged for longer, increasing their odds of losing more.

Mike Bergeron, a certified credit counselor at Credit Canada, agrees.

“It's just so easily accessible,” says Bergeron. “Everywhere you're at — it's on your phone, it's at home on your computer, you can do it at work on your lunch break.”

In an interview with Newsweek earlier this year, Kevin Whyte, the executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said his organization saw a 45% increase in gambling hotline calls and a 100% increase in text and chat communications in the first year after the Supreme Court decision.

“We believe that the expansion of online gambling, including sports betting, has increased the severity and rate of gambling problems,” Whyte said.

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What are some of the warning signs of a gambling addiction?

Gabriele says that the problem with gambling addictions is the issue is often not well understood.

“In the industry, we say that gambling is the invisible addiction,” explains Gabriele. There aren’t any visible effects of a gambling addiction, compared with drugs or alcohol, but there are still some major red flags you can look out for.

Spending more money than you initially intended to or pulling money from other sources to fund your habit is the number-one indicator, she says. Another concerning sign is if your habit starts to impact other aspects of your life, like jeopardizing your significant relationships, career opportunities or education.

Those are both signs Vineberg saw in his own life. At one point, he was siphoning off a percentage of his paycheck and keeping it in a separate account to hide his gambling from his wife. He also opened up secret credit cards and lines of credit to finance his habit.

“I owed money to everybody … I was stealing from Peter to pay Paul,” says Vineberg.

Setting firm limits on how much and how often you gamble can help keep you from sliding into risky behaviors. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction recommends that you bet no more than 1% of your household income before tax per month, and to restrict yourself to gambling no more than four days a month.

How you respond physically and emotionally to those limits can be telling as well. Gabriele says if you get irritable when you try to cut back or become overly preoccupied with gambling, that may indicate you have an issue.

“Even when they're not gambling, they're thinking about gambling, they're planning on gambling, they're trying to figure out how they can get more money so they can go back and gamble,” says Gabriele.

“Or they're worried about not having any money at all, because they've spent it all on gambling,” she adds. “And of course, they'll gamble even more, because that causes a great deal of distressed feelings.”

How can you get your finances under control?

An addict may soon find their problem has gotten so big that they can’t cover basic expenses, like their mortgage or rent payments.

“We've seen people go from six-figure incomes and very lucrative, satisfying jobs to living on the streets because of gambling,” notes Gabriele. “The journey can happen almost from the start for some people, and for other people, it can take many, many years before that becomes a consequence.”

Bergeron says the first step to getting out of this cycle is to acknowledge the issue and ensure you have systems in place to prevent you from going back.

“Even though there are solutions that could assist them in their debt or credit crisis, if we don't adjust and do something about the behavior that caused it, they will only become a Band-Aid,” says Bergeron.

The second step is to look at your finances. Depending on the severity of your debt, you may want to consider everything from debt consolidation or refinancing your mortgage to filing a consumer proposal or declaring bankruptcy.

“And then we start going through their income and expenses and trying to create a good action plan to live within their means, either to maintain their debt or to get out of debt at some point in the near future,” says Bergeron.

For some in the early days of recovery, it might be easier to take some of the decision-making out of their hands and limit their access to money by naming a financial trustee.

“Because one of the insidious factors of gambling is the lack of respect that one has for money — it gets converted into pretty little coins, you know, just numbers on a screen. It loses its importance to that person, it becomes depersonalized for them,” explains Gabriele. “And over time, they need to regain that respect and appreciation for money as a tool to provide safety and security in their lives.”

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The sooner you seek help, the better

Vineberg made several attempts to get help for 15 years before he was ultimately successful. After three relapses — the last triggered by the event of his father’s death — he came clean to his wife at a therapy session, calling it his “first real accountability move.”

From there, he attended gambling counseling at the HGDH center in Windsor. In the first year-and-a-half of his recovery, he had to consolidate a lot of his debts and hand the financial reins over to his wife.

“If there's one thing that's different in my recovery now than the other attempts, it’s that I am still actively participating, acknowledging, being accountable to and owning my recovery,” says Vineberg.

For anyone else who may be wrestling with the same, he emphasizes that the sooner you seek help, the better.

He admits the early days were hard. Vineberg and his wife lived on a fairly restrictive budget for a while and made sacrifices to get back on track. But because he sought out help when he did, the couple were able to take a two-week vacation to Italy earlier this year.

And he hopes that in bringing his experience with addiction to light, it'll help others who may be struggling in the shadows.

“My son's going to be 27 — my oldest — and I don't tell him not to gamble,” says Vineberg. “I tell him … that if you start to notice that you can't go without it, don't be afraid to reach out for some help.”

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