The number of problem gamblers caught violating their voluntary bans from Maryland casinos doubled in March, according to a review by the News4 I-Team.
The loosening of public health restrictions has helped Maryland casinos rebound from some financial losses during the pandemic, but the easing of restrictions has also coincided with a sharp increase in violations by gamblers who have voluntarily banned themselves from casinos.
When Maryland legalized and approved regulations for casinos nearly a decade ago, the state created a “voluntary exclusion” program. Problem gamblers can voluntarily enroll in the program, which the state calls a “self-help tool” to assist them combat the addiction.
“Individuals in the Voluntary Exclusion Program who return to casinos receive a trespassing citation from local law enforcement, not for punitive purposes, but as a means to encourage them to seek (diversion),” the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency said.
Winnings can also be seized from a gambler who is caught violating the voluntary exclusion program when he or she is removed from a casino. That money goes into the Maryland Problem Gambling Fund.
Enrollment in the program has grown steadily since 2013, according to state records reviewed by the I-Team. But violations spiked suddenly in March, as public health restrictions were loosened in the state. The number of people caught violating their voluntary bans nearly doubled to approximately 70 in March. The number was sharply higher than February and much higher than pre-pandemic levels in early 2020, the I-Team found.
“They have serious and uncontrollable urges to gamble that they’ve suppressed when the casinos have been closed,” said Keith Whyte of the National Council on Problem Gambling.
“Now that casinos are reopening, it’s not surprising you’re seeing this increase in violations,” Whyte said.
The I-Team checked with several states that operate or monitor casino “self-exclusion” programs. New York and Michigan gaming agencies both declined I-Team requests to release figures on violations, instead requiring formal Freedom of Information Act requests, which remain pending. Pennsylvania, which is home to multiple major casinos, released its numbers of voluntary-exclusion violations to the I-Team. The data showed a sharp increase as pandemic health restrictions were eased. Pennsylvania reported approximately 370 problem gambler “self-ban” violations between January and March 2021, up from nearly 155 violations between January and March 2020.
“The only way to ensure these gamblers stay out of casinos is for them to get treatment for their gambling problem,” Whyte said. “Self-exclusion is not addressing the root cause.”
The American Gaming Association said U.S. casinos use technology to help enforce voluntary exclusion programs. The organization also credits MGM National Harbor casino in Prince George’s County with regularly checking IDs of patrons as they enter.
“The truth is there are 3 percent of the population that take this a little bit too seriously and need help and need interventions,” American Gaming Association spokesman Casey Clark said.
“There are important programs like self-exclusion and the work that the National Center on Problem Gambling and other entities do to help provide the right level of support for folks who aren't able to enjoy it as a form of entertainment anymore,” Clark said.
Catherine Lyon, a recovering problem gambler who helps counsel others, said voluntary-exclusions lists are often ineffective. Lyon said she enrolled in a “self-ban” list more than 14 years ago from casinos in Arizona as her addiction spiraled.
“Within a month-and-a-half, I was doing anything I can to get in there,” she said.
She said she wore wigs, sunglasses and other disguises to evade detection and was never caught.
Lyon said problem gambling can lead to desperate decisions and suicidal thoughts.
“It's very financially devastating,” she said. “I think that the financial part is where they, a lot of people, lose hope. They don't think they can dig themselves out.”
Lyon said problem gamblers must supplement their voluntary exclusions with a treatment program or other efforts to combat the addiction.
Howard Riback, a recovering problem gambler and popular radio host and motivational speaker in Canada, said he anticipated a surge in violations by problem gamblers.
“I am not surprised at all,” Riback said. “People are walking around more depressed, more time on their hands; zombie-like people don't know what's going to be tomorrow, let alone next week.”
Riback said although problem gamblers should be congratulated for enrolling in voluntary exclusion programs, they must also seek out treatment and therapy.
“I'm proud that I was able to end that horrific part of my life, but until the day I die, those scars will be with me,” Riback said. “And make no mistake, the (scars) are not going anywhere. They're memories with every passing day.”
Whyte, the head of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said casinos nationwide could more effectively police for gamblers who have voluntarily banned themselves.
“The casino has a wealth of systems to track players, but it always seems to fail when it comes to tracking those who self-exclude,” said Whyte.
e Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency said casinos are effective in enforcing the program.
“The Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency has issued a ‘notice of regulatory violation’ to various casinos for instances when an individual enrolled in the voluntary exclusion program was permitted to gamble or obtain a cash advance,” the agency said. “These are infrequent events, and the casinos are doing an effective job monitoring play by excluded players — both by self-reporting voluntary exclusion program violators to the (agency) each month and also by taking appropriate action against voluntary exclusion violators. No financial penalties have been assessed.”
More information can be found at 1-800-GAMBLER or by visiting mdgamblinghelp.org.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper.