After her husband died the day before Christmas in 1997, June L. found herself living alone in her apartment in northern New Jersey.
Cruising the Internet one day, the senior citizen discovered websites where she could play casino games such as blackjack and poker right from her home. At first, she won some of the time. In fact, on four occasions she won $10,000, and it was indeed sent to her.
"They would send me gifts from Antigua and all different places. All kinds of little gifts to keep you going," she explains in a telephone interview. "I'd sometimes get up in the middle of the night to play."
But the winning didn't last. Soon she was maxing out her credit cards to pay for her losses. She ran through a $60,000 insurance settlement, then the rest of her savings.
"I even spent the money for my burial," she says. "I cashed that in, too." Eventually she lost about $110,000 and went bankrupt.
"My children wouldn't even talk with me anymore," she recalls. "They were disgusted with what I was doing. I just couldn't seem to stop myself."
Eventually, she got help from the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling. She hasn't gambled for a year and a half now. Her grown children have reunited with her, her finances have been stabilized, and she has been able to stay in her apartment. Though mostly confined there with a number of physical problems, she counsels others via the Internet and phone about the dangers of online gambling.
Despite the horror stories of people like June L. cropping up across the United States, and efforts to regulate the use of credit cards to gamble, the estimated $4 billion per year Internet gambling industry seems set for continued rapid growth.
An estimated 1,800 gambling sites have gone into business since the first one sprang up in 1995. The sites operate from outside the United States, in places such as Antigua, Costa Rica, and the Isle of Man.
The Interstate Wire Act of 1960, which prohibits the sending of gambling information over telephone lines, so far has discouraged companies from setting up shop in the United States. But that act, passed long before the Internet age, may not hold up to legal challenge. A recent appellate court decision affirmed a lower court ruling that the act covers only sports betting.
In recent years several bills have been introduced in Congress to try to address the situation, but nothing has passed.
The policy debate is likely to center around a more clearly defined ban, which would still leave unaddressed the problem of "offshore" sites, versus the nationwide legalization of website gambling along with regulation - the model used with brick-and-mortar casinos in some states.
Reps. Mike Oxley (R) of Ohio, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and Rep. Jim Leach (R) of Iowa recently reintroduced a bill that would outlaw the use of credit cards and other bank instruments to finance online gambling.
"We're going to have to have more legislation," says Harold Krent, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago who teaches the legal aspects of e-commerce. For one thing, he points out, without regulation it's impossible to know what the real odds of winning are.
Frank Fahrenkopf, president and CEO of the American Gaming Association (AGA), which represents the commercial casino industry in the United States, says the AGA has taken no position yet on federal regulation of Internet gambling. But he says his members remain concerned that today's Internet technology is inadequate to prevent minors and pathological gamblers from playing.
The commercial casino industry has long been committed to helping problem gamblers, Mr. Fahrenkopf adds. It posts 1-800 help numbers at casinos, pays taxes that fund help programs, and sponsors research into the causes of and treatment for problem gambling.
Bankrate.com, the financial website, has reported that 90 percent of Internet gamblers open online gambling accounts with credit cards. But efforts are already under way to cut out this middleman. After a California woman won a $75,000 settlement against two credit-card companies who had loaned her money to gamble on the Internet, financial institutions, including Citibank, Providian, Discover, and American Express, have been trying to distance themselves from Internet gambling, refusing to process payments from online gambling sites. In November, PayPal, a Web payment system recently acquired by online auctioneer eBay, also stopped processing payments for gambling sites.
But plenty of "work arounds" still remain, including using overseas-issued credit cards, debiting an ATM card, or using a digital-cash system other than PayPal. Gambling sites could attempt to mask the nature of the charge by coding it to look as if it is for a different kind of purchase to fool the credit-card company.
"US customers want to play, and they will find a way to play," David Carruthers of betonsports.com told Newsweek magazine last fall.
A study released in 2002 indicates that Internet gambling may be especially addictive - or at least attract a disproportionate number of compulsive gamblers. The Gambling Treatment Research Center at the University of Connecticut in Storrs found that 75 percent of those who gamble online have a gambling problem. That compares with about 5 percent of the overall gambling population. Online gambling "seems to draw people who already have a gambling problem or perhaps those who are prone to developing gambling problems," says Nancy Petry, an associate professor at UConn who coauthored the study.
Gambling can play havoc with personal finances. The average gambler owes more than $40,000 in unsecured debt and carries an average of eight credit cards, each with a balance of up to $10,000 in debt, says a 1999 study by the National Academy of Science Research Council.
"I'm glad I'm not gambling now because I'd probably be stuck in these online casinos," says Gil D., a reformed casino gambler who is now a spokesman for Gamblers Anonymous of Eastern Massachusetts. "We've seen a couple of fathers bring in children who've cleaned out [parents'] credit cards on Internet gambling. They didn't even know this was going on."
With the Super Bowl coming this Sunday, the biggest sports betting event of the year, Marlene Warner says she expects a spike of calls to the Massachusetts Council on Gambling, where she serves as program director. "People call and say, 'I'm so stupid. I must be the only one in the world addicted to gambling.' "
Just a few days ago she had received a call from a person who had stolen more than $6,000 from an employer to pay for Internet gambling charges.
The first step in helping, she says, is assuring the individual that he or she is not alone.
"There's still a lot of shame connected with it," Ms. Warner says. Then they are told about places they can get more information or treatment (see list, below).
For some, 12-step group programs, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, are the answer. Others get counseling that shows them why and when they are vulnerable to compulsive gambling and how they can replace it with more constructive activity, such as renewing ties to family and friends.
When June L. hit bottom, she turned to her Bible and prayed.
"I knew that I was doing the wrong thing. And I think that's what caught in my mind."
Internet gambling has made inroads into the private time of many Americans. What happens when it shows up at work?
Ed Looney, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling, tells of when he attended a recent conference in Nebraska on Internet gambling. A police chief had signed up: One of his officers was using a computer at the police station to gamble online.
Was it illegal? the police chief wanted to know. What could he do to help the officer?
Internet gambling at work has become a concern for many employers. A survey conducted last year by Websense Inc., a San Diego company that supplies Internet-blocking software to businesses, found that 8 percent of employees admitted to finding Internet gambling potentially addictive, and 2 percent admitted to gambling online at the office. These percentages are in line with numerous studies showing that roughly 5 percent of the adult American population has problems with compulsive gambling.
Employers face three main concerns regarding Internet gambling, says Ted Ladd, a Websense spokesman:
Possible legal liabilities. Though no company has yet to be sued, employers could be vulnerable to suits from employees who develop gambling problems at work and then blame the company.
Tying up bandwidth. Nonwork-related activities can slow a company's connection to the Internet and reduce productivity.
Time wasted. On average, the survey found, employees spend about 8.3 hours a week, a full workday, accessing nonwork-related websites, a huge loss of productivity.
Some 47 percent of employers now use filtering software to block access to Internet gambling sites, the survey said. That compares with 78 percent who block pornography sites and 37 percent who block shopping and auction sites.
Though the commonly accepted number of gambling websites worldwide is about 1,800, Websense's tracking figures show about 40,000 sites in 2002, up from about 26,000 in 2001, a 53 percent increase.
Do you have a gambling problem or know someone who does? Among the signs: You or your associate has used income or savings to gamble while letting bills go unpaid, or borrowed money to use for wagering.
Below are some resources for those seeking help or information for themselves or a friend or family member (all organizations listed accept inquiries nationwide):
Gamblers Anonymous A national umbrella group for state organizations. www.gamblersanonymous.org 213-386-8789.
Gam-Anon Provides support for the spouse, family, or close friends of compulsive gamblers. www.gam-anon.org 718-352-1671.
New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling Provides prevention, education, and referral services to anyone affected by gambling. www.800gambler.org 800-GAMBLER.
National Council on Problem Gambling Seeks to increase public awareness of pathological gambling, ensure the widespread availability of treatment, and encourage research and programs for prevention and education. www.ncpgambling.org 800-522-4700.
The Gambling Treatment Research Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center Offers free and confidential treatment to individuals with gambling problems. www.gamblingtreatment.net 877-400-0570.