Need to know
- Gambling losses from Victoria increased significantly during lockdown in 2020
- Some online betting companies are marketing lockdown specials
- Online punters will probably soon be barred from using credit cards to gamble
In the Victorian town of Bendigo, Paul Rankin is tracking a growing problem with online wagering apps. He's the team lead for Gamblers Help, a service run by the charity Anglicare. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Rankin says he's seen a troubling increase in clients getting into trouble with online wagering.
"It's hard to put an exact number on it," he says, "but have we seen some people come in who weren't previously gambling? Yes. Have we seen some people convert from other forms of gambling to online gambling? Yes."
There are reports of increasing conflict between gamblers and their partners and families, children missing out on basic necessities such as clothingPaul Rankin, Gamblers Help, Bendigo, Victoria
Although the apps' marketing campaigns play down the dangers of gambling, Anglicare sees real damage on a daily basis.
"There are reports of increasing conflict between gamblers and their partners and families, children missing out on basic necessities such as clothing, children missing out on extracurricular activities," says Rankin. "We had one case of someone stealing from their business."
And he's not the only one sounding the alarm.
According to the Victorian Department of Treasury and Finance, between July and December 2020, when much of the state was in a long lockdown, Victorians lost $1.4 billion on sports wagering and betting. That's $375 million more than during the same period the previous year.
A survey of more than 2000 gamblers by the Australian Gambling Research Centre found that almost one in three signed up for a new online betting account during COVID-19, with young men (18–34 years old) the most likely to have increased their gambling frequency.
At risk of gambling harm
Seventy-nine percent of participants were classified as being at risk of or already experiencing gambling harm.
"Obviously not everyone who gambles experiences significant harms, but we do know that for quite a large number of people in Australia there are quite significant harms that come from gambling," says Dr Christopher John Hunt from GambleAware Central Sydney.
"Obviously the financial harms are the primary problem that we see. People are having trouble paying bills or making payments on various loans, or falling behind on their rent. With the more extreme examples it can lead to bankruptcy.
We see a lot of depression, anxiety, worry about their partner finding out, how they are going to pay their next billDr Christopher John Hunt, GambleAware Central Sydney
"Then we see a lot of secondary harms as a result of those financial harms. We see a lot of depression, anxiety, worry about their partner finding out, how they are going to pay their next bill. That worry can be quite significant and lead to difficulty sleeping, physical health can deteriorate, to the point even of being driven to commit crimes or engaging in suicidal thoughts."
All of which can only be exacerbated by being stuck in your home most of the day. One online betting company for example, BetDeluxe, seems to be exploiting the pandemic for profit.
Cashing in on the pandemic
There are about 70 online wagering companies with licences to operate in Australia.
The market leader is Sportsbet, owned by Irish gambling company Flutter. According to its own analysis, Flutter controlled 46% of the online betting market in 2020. It also reported 10% online market growth in 2020.
During COVID people turn to things to get by, whether having a drink or streaming more Netflix, or having a betDr Alex Russell, gambling researcher, Central Queensland University
"During COVID people turn to things to get by, whether having a drink or streaming more Netflix, or having a bet," says Dr Alex Russell, a gambling researcher at Central Queensland University. "The concern for anything, but particularly things that are addictive behaviours, is you are starting to rely on it to get by.
"That's when things start to go downhill. And things don't necessarily start to go downhill immediately. By the time people realise they are experiencing problems from their gambling, it's usually because they have hit a crisis point, at which point it's probably a bit too late."
Many online wagering companies are benefiting from the pandemic, but some are finding new opportunities to promote their products during lockdown.
In July 2021, when Melbourne entered its fifth coronavirus lockdown, CHOICE found multiple social media ads from online betting company BetDeluxe, specifically targeting those stuck in lockdown.
Offering a 'Lockdown number 5 money back special', the ads featured the faces of political leaders such as Victorian Premier Dan Andrews and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian superimposed on horse racing jockeys.
Tim Costello from the Alliance for Gambling Reform says targeting consumers during lockdown is immoral.
"They are irresponsible, when there is collective sacrifice and a call for interdependence and care, to prey on people's loneliness and boredom in lockdown," he says. "To increase their advertising spend in lockdown is utterly immoral."
BetDeluxe did not respond to CHOICEs questions about the appropriateness of lockdown targeted advertising.
Some online wagering companies are finding new opportunities to promote their products during lockdown "to prey on people's loneliness and boredom", according to one commentator.
Promotions to lose
Dr Russell says 2018 research led by Professor Nerilee Hing shows that promotions such as money back or bonus bets don't benefit punters in the long run.
The research shows that promotions lead people to make riskier bets and bet more often – and to lose more in the end.
If you're winning they won't give you promotions, so if you are getting lots of promotions, it means you are losing lots of moneyDr Alex Russell
"A lot of these operators are fairly predatory, because when you bet with the same operators they track your behaviour over time," he says. "They know who loses a lot and therefore who they should target to get more money out of them.
"If you're winning they won't give you promotions, so if you are getting lots of promotions, it means you are losing lots of money to the operators."
Credit cards: soon to be banned
One of the areas of greatest concern is the use of credit cards for online wagering. Credit cards are banned at in-person gaming venues such as clubs or casinos, but in the online space punters have been free to place bets with credit they'll have to make good on if they lose.
But that's about to change. In August, major wagering companies decided to drop their long-term opposition to a credit card ban. The government is now likely to impose the same restrictions to online gambling that apply at casinos.
Harm of using online betting apps
Dr Russell says that the move is welcome and would help limit some harms, but that there are still many unseen risks for gamblers, such as banks refusing mortgages to people who regularly use online betting apps.
"I think it's great that credit cards are going away, but I don't think it negates all the harms," he says. "It's great you can't gamble with money that isn't yours and it's great you won't be slugged with these extra credit card fees, but financial institutions will take your gambling habits into account and that can have a big impact."
Sportsbet is one of the major online wagering companies that embeds its ads into sports programming through partnerships with TV broadcasters of sports events such as the AFL.
It did not respond to CHOICE's questions about whether this practice increased gambling harm.
It's important that those who do find themselves experiencing gambling harm get professional assistance and get it early
The Australian Gambling Research Centre says that research shows advertising of gambling increases uptake, especially among adolescents. They say the research also shows it most negatively affects those with existing problems related to gambling.
Companies such as Sportsbet also use the data they are given from punters to send text messages and emails offering promotions and encouraging gambling.
Dr Russell says it's important that those who do find themselves experiencing gambling harm get professional assistance and get it early.
"No-one sets out to be an addict," he says. "No-one woke up one day and said 'I want to have a problem with gambling'. This happens to people, they are addictive products, gambling advertising is everywhere. it's really hard to escape it once it starts to grab your interest.
"If you feel that things are starting to get out of control even a little bit, don't expect you are able to get it back under control yourself. There is absolutely no harm in seeking help, there has always been a lot of stigma about seeking help with your gambling, but there shouldn't be."
If you or anyone you know needs support, contact the Gambling Helpline on 1800 858 858.
Other services that may be of assistance: National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007 or ndh.org.au, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au, and Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.