“What’s your occupation?” asked the loans manager as he filled out my loan application form on his computer.
I explained that I worked in financial counselling and was trying to improve gambling consumer protection policy. We chatted and I asked if he saw customers with gambling issues in his branch role.
“Definitely,” he replied.
As he walked me out, his sense of shame was palpable as he lowered his voice and said: "You’re doing really important work. My dad lost all our family’s money."
People are constantly telling me their gambling stories.
There’s so much harm.
It doesn’t seem to matter whether someone is highly educated, rich or poor. Nor does it matter whether the amount lost is objectively insignificant. It’s also the harm of lost time – with kids, not turning up to dinners.
Last week, I heard from a gentle 19-year-old having panic attacks over a $179 online gambling loss. The gambling company had sent the police to do a welfare check as he confessed suicidal thoughts. He knew his thoughts were irrational. It was only $179. But he helped his widowed mother with expenses and there was a big water bill to pay, and his thoughts were swirling.
His story is just one of many financial counsellors are helping with.
There is the husband who doesn’t know that his wife dissipated his savings. A woman whose partner has gambled the proceeds of the sale of their home. They had to settle on their new house, but there was nothing left. A mother heading to court – and probably jail – after spending $800,000 on a social casino game – yes, an addictive game. No real money winnings ever, just virtual bags of coins. Police laid charges around using ‘other people’s money’. The four big banks don’t know it yet, but they won’t see her loans repaid.
There is one story, however, that still stands out and affects me deeply.
A few years ago, Peter (not his real name) – with a professional background in the financial sector – had seen media coverage of me talking about banks, gambling and the royal commission. He emailed me saying: “I want to share my story to help with your work. I wish my bank had helped me.”
He told me he’d asked to break a term deposit and the bank teller, presumably looking at his screen full of gambling transactions, said: “I can see what you’re doing, but it is your money and I can’t tell you what to do.” Within weeks, his $500,000 accident compensation money was gambled. He had just 79 cents left and a mountain of shame.
The family hadn’t known about his gambling. Gambling thrives on secrets.
I will never forget my heartache when calling the police some four months later to do a welfare check on Peter, and hearing that he was found dead by his poor mother.
The gift Peter left was his permission to share his 30-page gambling statement – this helped contribute to action.
Two years ago, his statement was read in a workshop run by Financial Counselling Australia with the big banks. It was confronting for workshop participants who spent time exploring the statements.
I overheard the comments.
“OMG, he deposited almost $300,000 the first night, he’s still betting at 3am. He’s bet on the same horse in the same race twice, this doesn’t make sense. He’s gone from $50 bets to $10,000 bets. Look there is a $15,000 bet. He doesn’t win much.”
I read out Peter’s email and his words hung in the air: “I wish my bank had helped me.”
To my embarrassment I teared up and cried recalling the moment I heard of his death, and meeting Peter’s sad, frail mother.
Some good bank people took the heaviness of the morning and the imagery that I’d shared back to their offices and relentlessly worked to do some good.
Since then, Westpac, ANZ and NAB have introduced a gambling block where customers can elect to have gambling transactions stopped via self-serve user blocks in their apps and online banking portals. Commonwealth Bank’s app block is coming soon and customers can ask for the block by phone.
Westpac has just added keycards to the suite of cards that can have the block in addition to credit and debit cards and, at the end of last month, more than 28,000 Westpac cards had the block active – adding to the blocks activated by customers of Commonwealth Bank, ANZ and NAB.
This is a welcome step, but I still find most people don’t know about the banks’ gambling blocks.
So, my message to anyone who becomes privy to a gamblers’ secrets is to shout about the banks’ gambling blocks from the rooftops. Tell the hairdresser who hears their clients’ secrets, the mate who sees their best friend getting into trouble, the mothers who know something is not right.
And support, don’t judge.
You may not be able to cure someone of their addiction, but you can direct people to where there is help – non-judgmental help. The banks have tools and special teams. Online wagering companies, casinos and local venues must also now allow people to self-exclude (and then the marketing stops). Financial counsellors can help too, and there are specialist funded gambling financial counsellors who help both the person gambling or affected others.
We need to normalise getting help for those impacted by gambling. We need to treat it as the most normal thing in the world to talk about getting help for gambling, just like those ads on TV have normalised having a punt.
Especially with spring racing season upon us.
If you wish to speak to someone about gambling support, you can call Gambler’s Helpline on 1800 858 858.
To access free financial counselling advice, ring the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
For more about Westpac's gambling block feature, visit gambling block.