Di Smith (name changed) hates the family computer now. She will not dust the desk it sits on or even pass close to it in the family dining room. For her, the family computer is no-go zone. It is a link to a destructive addiction that this mother of three finds herself powerless to fight.
Di is a gambler and has lost the family US $32,000 playing online slot games and Poker. This is the equivalent of her husband's annual income, and he has been forced to take a second job to pay off his wife's debts.
The problem started after the couple purchased the family computer. Bob, Di's husband, played at an online casino occasionally and introduced his wife to the website one evening when there was nothing on television. "He regrets that, I'll tell you," she says, giving the computer a wary glance. She first started playing with small amounts of money during the daytime when her youngest child took his afternoon nap. "It was just US $2 bets and sometimes I was lucky." But soon Di began playing for higher stakes.
She knew she was developing serious trouble the first time she gambled US $500 in one afternoon. "Usually, I'd win something back, but that day I lost the lot. I couldn't believe it. I put another US $100 in my account because I knew if I won, I'd make up my losses - but I lost again. I went back on the Net that night - Bob and the kids were in bed and I needed to win." That night she used all the money available on the couple's credit card.
Since Di handled the family's finances, she was able to cover up that debt by applying for other credit cards. Then she spent more time on the family computer and lost even more money using the new credit cards. Her husband found out when creditors telephoned the house. "Bob went crazy; he hates debt. I thought he was going to leave me. He did for that night. He went to his mother's," she said.
Gambling charities that offer treatment for addicts say Di's story is not unusual.
Geoffrey Godbold, head of GamCare, says increasing numbers of women are turning to gambling online. Again, the number of women gamblers seeking help through the charity's website too has risen to 25 per cent from 2 per cent in 2000.
Online gambling is more dangerous than other forms of gambling because of the speed of activity and the isolation of players, says Godbold. "There is no time to think of what you are doing, and there is no one to tap you on the shoulder when things are going wrong."
Old-fashioned betting shops - typically filled with cigarette smoke and sawdust - were traditionally seen as male domains where women would rarely venture. But with these shops having smartened up and casinos attracting both genders, gambling has lost a great deal of its downmarket stigma, says Faith Freestone of Gordon House, a residential centre for gambling addicts. And since online gambling can be played in the privacy of one's house, a woman is likely to be more confident of giving it a try.
However, Internet gambling is particularly dangerous because there are fewer laws to regulate it. Although it is illegal to operate a gambling website in the UK, online gambling is legal. Most gambling websites operate from Antigua or Guatemala, beyond the legislative boundaries of the UK or the US, where the vast majority of players live.
To play, gamblers have to first register online with a website. An account is opened and the player is given a password. The player can then place a deposit in the account, which s/he does usually with a credit card. As they lose or win, money is deducted or added to their account.
Posters for gambling websites decorate billboards and buses throughout the UK. The online gambling business has tripled since 1997 and is now worth UK £15 billion (US$1=UK£0.54). Internet technology can conjure up the games of chance with visual and sound effects so that players feel they are almost there. Gambling websites aimed specifically at women have been developed, complete with pink screens and girlish fonts.
Some websites offer accounts with free introductory gambling money to lure players to their sites. Gamblers even report that websites put credit into their account when they haven't played for a while. This is exactly what happened with Di. After her husband found out about the gambling, he cut up all the credit cards and put a lock on the computer so she couldn't access online casinos. "He made me promise on my knees that I would never gamble again," she says.
And she didn't - until five months later and she was at a friend's house. No one was around and she logged on to her old gambling website. "I just wanted to have a look," she says with wide-eyed conviction. She says her heart raced when she saw the company had deposited US $100 in her account. "I thought about it and felt sick," Di says. Fortunately, she heard someone coming and closed the website.
Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University, says Internet gambling sites typically try to lure new customers with special deals and demonstration games that provide easy wins. "It's their business model," he says.
And Griffiths is concerned that online gambling websites do not protect the vulnerable customer who might be learning disabled, depressed or drunk. "If someone is drunk at a casino, friends or staff will stop them from gambling. But online, does anyone know who's been drinking?" he asks. Another problem is the use of credit cards to top up gambling accounts. "It's easy to forget you are playing with real money."
Gambling is a UK £50 billion business in the UK, and it brings in healthy tax revenues. A Gambling Act passed earlier this year will allow the development of one large 'supercasino' and 16 small casinos across the country. Supporters of casinos say it will regenerate economies by offering jobs and promoting tourism in areas of high unemployment.
"The traditional industry has done a lot to be socially responsible," says Freestone, referring to the policy many casinos have of rejecting bets by those who are under the influence of alcohol and carrying out credit checks on clients to ensure their ability to pay. She adds that policing gamblers on alcohol use and credit checks could at least ensure fewer problems.
Gordon House, which has 38 beds, with three reserved for women, is petitioning for more money to increase the number of residential beds to treat addicts. They are isolated from sources of gambling and given one-on-one therapy and group therapy to help them discover the reasons for their addiction. Ominously, Freestone warns that the full impact of online gambling is yet to be felt.