Get the latest on coronavirus. Sign up to the Daily Brief for news, explainers, how-tos, opinion and more.
“I got quite a big bonus from work before the lockdown which was going to help pay some of my debts off, but I have gambled that away plus more trying to win it back,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“I’ve lost track of how much I’ve spent on gambling during lockdown but I think it may be £8,000 to £9,000.”
Samantha admits she is wracked with guilt at her gambling – and has kept it hidden from her family. “My husband has no idea and he is so careful with money and would be appalled.
“I tend to gamble during the night when everyone else is asleep and as I don’t have to be at work, being awake half the night isn’t so much of a problem now as it would be if I was back at work.”
Samantha isn’t alone in being lured into online gambling during the lockdown enforced by the coronavirus pandemic.
With the absence of sports betting such as football and horse racing for a prolonged period, many regular gamblers turned to the more addictive online gambling products such as online slots, poker and casino.
Shocking figures from regulator the Gambling Commission reveal that betting on online slot machines has increased by 25% during lockdown.
This works out to around £228m lost in a month on online slot machines during lockdown compared to £183m lost in the same month last year – a staggering increase of £45m.
The data from the Gambling Commission collected from gambling firms themselves also shows that the number of gambling sessions lasting more than an hour has increased by 23% year-on-year.
Campaigners say the temptation for online gambling has been far greater during the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, with people spending greater amounts of time at home and on their computers who perhaps turn to online gambling for the thrill and excitement – or as a way of solving financial problems if their job has been affected.
The impact can be much more devastating than just financial for some who cannot see a way out of the debt they’ve fallen into.
Charles and Liz Ritchie run Gambling With Lives, a campaign and pressure group which supports families who have lost loved ones as a result of gambling. Their son Jack took his own life at the age of 24 after feeling that his gambling was out of control.
Charles Ritchie told HuffPost UK they are now supporting a family who were bereaved by gambling suicide during the coronavirus lockdown.
“It was a young man who was working from home and at the start of May, he took out a substantial loan and gambled it away online within a very short period of time.” he said.
“He gambled £16,000 in two days and only had one e-mail from the betting company asking if he was OK.
“His death came within hours of finishing that gambling session.”
Charles says people with a gambling problem are even more unsafe during the coronavirus pandemic as they are essentially at home a lot more, may be facing additional pressures and may feel they have no one to turn to or any escape from gambling.
“Even though there has been a huge drop in sports betting, there has been an increase in online forms of gambling.
“It is these people who are most at risk. Lockdown has all the characteristics to draw people into gambling more as they may have time on their hands, be bored and there are less things to do.”
Samantha, who has been gambling secretly during lockdown hiding it from her family, revealed how she began gambling online about five years ago and had a big win of £10,000 when she first started.
Ever since, she has been chasing another big win – but says it has never happened.
She says she usually played on a site with a safe play procedure in place, but when she reached her deposit limits with them, she looked for other gambling sites.
“Currently, I have three credit cards which total £30,000 and they are all up to the limit, mainly with gambling. But now you can’t use credit cards to gamble, this will get better. I’m also over my overdraft limit through gambling.”
Samantha says the advertising of gambling sites, particularly on social media such as Facebook, seems to have been ramped up during lockdown. “Every other post on Facebook seemed to be about gambling sites.” she said. “I have since blocked these adverts, but whenever I was looking for a new site to try as I’ve played and closed my account on lots, it was very easy to find.”
One man who knows how devastating a gambling addiction can be is Neal Stewart.
Neal, 37, who lives in Burnley, Lancashire, told HuffPost UK how he was a store manager at a furniture superstore in Manchester and earning a good salary when his gambling habit became out of control.
He said he had always gambled “what I could afford to lose” but he suffered a few bereavements in the family including a stillbirth and the death of his grandfather who he was close to.
“I went off the rails and took £20,000 from work and used it to gamble. I narrowly escaped being locked up.”
After getting help for his gambling addiction and attending weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings which he describes as “the only reason I am still alive”, Neal managed two-and-a-half years without gambling.
However, he stopped going to Gamblers Anonymous meetings for six weeks – and suffered a huge relapse after being lured by online gambling.
“I got a message telling me I had won 20 free spins on a betting site.” he said. “I didn’t win anything so I deposited another £10.
“Within 25 minutes, I had lost £1,700 while sitting in my car outside Tesco on my phone.”
Neal describes how this left him with no money to pay his mortgage, bills or to buy food. He went to three different payday loan companies to get the £700 he needed to pay his bills.
“One of the payday lenders lent me £50 more than I needed. So I deposited that into my betting account to try and win back the £1,700.
“I lost the £50 – and then I lost the £700 too and didn’t pay my bills.
“I was just gambling on anything online that I could. Sometimes, I would go on the slots on one betting site while waiting for the roulette wheel to spin on another.”
“I would struggle to hand over £100 in a betting shop. But when you are online, it is just a number and is just like adding another zero.” said Neal. “It doesn’t feel like real money."”
Neal, who has two children, says when he was in the grip of his gambling addiction, even knowing he could lose everything wasn’t enough to stop him.
“Even knowing I would lose everything didn’t stop me gambling. I knew my ex-partner would stop me seeing the children as I was not paying maintenance. My current partner said she would leave me if I carried on gambling.
Through the help of Gamblers Anonymous and counselling and being on anxiety medication, Neal has now managed 250 days without gambling.
“During lockdown, I joined Skype meetings and we are now doing socially distanced Gamblers Anonymous meetings at an outdoor venue.”
Neal, who is now a sales team leader for a call centre, says he was furloughed during lockdown, but his company made up the difference in pay. He has gambling software blocks on his phone and his boss put gambling blocks on his work laptop.
“To gamble, you need the time, the money and the opportunities. It is like a pyramid and you need all three. Lockdown and the pandemic has given this to a lot of gamblers.
“I would struggle to hand over £100 in a betting shop. But when you are online, it is just a number and is just like adding another zero.” said Neal. “It doesn’t feel like real money.
“I could not tell you if I have lost £100,000 or £200,000 to gambling over the years. But it will definitely run into tens of thousands.”
““To gamble, you need the time, the money and the opportunities. It is like a pyramid and you need all three. Lockdown and the pandemic has given this to a lot of gamblers.”
While the Gambling Commission found that overall, gambling was down during lockdown due to the loss of things like football, it is the spike in online gambling on things like online slot machines and poker which is troubling gambling campaigners.
They are also disturbed by research which shows that paid ad impressions for casino and gambling brands almost tripled in the UK over a month in lockdown.
The study, by GoldenCasinoNews.com also found that the UK was among the top 10 countries for paid gambling ads online in April having recorded 112,818 between April 5 and May 4 – up 196% year-on-year.
Matt Zarb-Cousin, director of Clean Up Gambling, a not-for-profit campaign which is pushing for a comprehensive review of the gambling regulations to make them fit for the digital age, told HuffPost UK that it is alarming as regular gamblers have migrated to more addictive gambling products such as online slots, casino and poker and consequently lost greater amounts of money.
“People have been spending a lot more time at home during the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.
“If you combine that with people’s economic circumstances becoming more precarious and then digital advertising spend increasing, it has created a toxic environment for gamblers.
“Online gambling may be perceived by some people as a solution to financial problems caused by the coronavirus crisis. But it is impossible to win long term playing slots."”
“People who were betting once or twice a week on football or horse-racing have been going to bet on online slot machines instead.
“These games are engaging and immersive and addictive by design and people can lose large amounts of money in a short space of time.
“My concern is that as we emerge from lockdown, more people will be addicted to gambling and people who have engaged with these types of products will have lost more than they can afford to. This will make a bad economic situation even worse.”
He added: “Online gambling may be perceived by some people as a solution to financial problems caused by the coronavirus crisis. But it is impossible to win long term playing slots.
The Gambling Commission has opened a consultation process on changes to make online slots safer for players in the UK.
The consultation period opened on July 9 and will close on September 3 with a fully industry-agreed code to be published at the end of that month.
A spokesperson for the Betting and Gaming Council told HuffPost UK: “Our members are working hard to raise standards to help problem gamblers and those at risk, though we note that both the regulator and the government have made it clear that there is no evidence that problem gambling has increased.
“Despite a dramatic fall in total gambling during lockdown – revenue is down by 60% – we have introduced tough new safer gambling measures during the pandemic.
“At the start of lockdown, the BGC published a 10-pledge plan setting out the standards expected of our members during the Covid-19 crisis.
“We voluntarily introduced a ban on gaming product advertising for a period of six weeks and going forward a requirement that 20% of all advertising will be safer gambling messaging.
“We have also introduced a whistle to whistle ban on sports advertising, cooling off periods on gaming machines, tools to set spend and deposit limits, monitoring play and spend, restricting and closing hundreds of thousands of accounts with new ID and age verification checks and massively increasing funding for research, education and treatment.
“We are committed to making more voluntary changes and driving up safer gambling standards. We will work with the Gambling Commission and the government to achieve this, particularly on the forthcoming Review of the Gambling Act.”
Useful websites and helplines
National Gambling Helpline. This provides confidential information, advice and support for anyone affected by gambling problems in England, Scotland and Wales. Run by GamCare, it has advisors available 24 hours a day on Freefone: 0808 8020 133 or via webchat at: www.gamcare.org.uk
Gamblers Anonymous. Call the national information line on: 0330 094 0322 or visit www.gamblersanonymous.org.uk to find out about a meeting near you
Gambling With Lives was set up by bereaved families and friends of young people who took their lives as a direct result of gambling. It supports families who have been bereaved by gambling related suicides and raises awareness of the dangerous effects of gambling on mental health and the high suicide risk. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit: www.gamblingwithlives.org
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 UK and ROI (this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill)
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
The Mix is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41
Maytree is a sanctuary for the suicidal in north London in a non-medical setting. For help or to enquire about a stay, call 020 7263 7070