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Calls to Virginia gambling hotline spiked once sports betting started in January

Published: Jun. 28, 2021 at 3:23 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - An in-depth review by the On Your Side Investigators found the number of people calling the state’s gambling hotline has spiked since the beginning of the year. But is that a symptom of the legalization of sports betting in Virginia, more advertising, or more people just recognizing a gambling problem?

On Your Side Investigator Rachel DePompa delves into the warning signs of gambling addiction with the help of a recovering addict.

For some, the chips and cards and slots and the sports bets are just a game. For others, gambling becomes an unhealthy obsession with serious consequences.

Longtime radio DJ Billy Hoffman says he reached his rock bottom more than 20 years ago.

“When my second wife was brave enough to leave me once and for all,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman started gambling in his teens, a habit that lasted 15 years.

“I suspected I had an addiction by the time I was 20, but I didn’t want to admit it,” Hoffman said.

The Norfolk native loved it all: cards, machines, horse racing and sports betting. Hoffman even became addicted to drugs. “I would not wish gambling addiction on my worst enemy. It is ruthless.” Hoffman placed his last bet at a racetrack on Feb 5, 2001.

“I consider it a blessing because it blew me up,” Hoffman said. So, he picked up a phone and called Virginia’s gambling addiction hotline.

“With warning signs, because you can’t smell gambling, you can’t see bloodshot eyes, this is what we consider a hidden addiction,” Carolyn Hawley, president of the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling, which manages the state’s helplines.

Hawley is hoping to shed more light on this hidden illness as the state opens up more gambling opportunities. When asked if Hawley is seeing more people call in for help, Hawley responded saying, “yes.”

Not only have calls more than doubled in the first four months of this year compared to last year, but 64% of the calls in March, April and May were from men. More than half of the calls, or 56%, involved sports betting and/or gambling machines.

Jessica Fiel with the American Gaming Association said, “We know that 97% of patrons enjoy gaming responsibly that’s the vast majority. But that’s the reason the legally regulated market is so essential because we can step in to help.”

Hawley knows gambling can be fun for a majority of people.

“But with gambling expansion, more people have the opportunity to gamble which means more people are going to develop problems,” Hawley said.

Hawley says there are warning signs of a problem, and there are ways to determine if a family member or loved one is in trouble.

“If you’re spending more time and more money on gambling than you had intended to. If you’re lying to family and friends about your gambling. If gambling is starting to interfere with our relationships, with your work,” Hawley said.

“If I’m keeping secrets, that tells me a person has an issue with it,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman now lives in Powhatan and is an internationally certified gambling counselor. Turning the tables on his addiction, he’s now hoping his recovery can help others.

“Before you lose your marriage over this, before you do something else that is destructive to your life, get some help because it’s not worth it,” Hoffman added.

Hoffman said the hardest part of his job is facing the rawest version of himself from 2001: When he placed that last bet and hit rock bottom. Hoffman has counseled thousands over the years.

Anyone can call the gambling hotline at 1-888-532-3500. It’s free and a trained counselor is on the other end, providing information and even referrals for treatment.

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