A program through which people voluntarily ban themselves from Maryland’s six casino is being criticized as toothless and unhelpful by local gambling addicts.
About 1,400 people have enrolled in the program, which was required under the state law authorizing the opening of the casinos almost a decade ago. It mirrors “self-exclusion” programs of neighboring states with casinos.
The state’s lottery and gaming commission administers the Maryland Voluntary Exclusion Program, which allows problem gamblers to enroll in an official state database of customers banned from entering the state’s casinos, including the new MGM National Harbor casino in Prince George’s County. Enrollees who are caught on a casino floor face arrest and a formal trespassing charge from police.
An I-Team review of the program found a fast-rising number of enrollees, including 28 in the past few weeks, but also found the self-exclusion lists generally require gamblers to police themselves. State regulators do not require casinos to check IDs of customers and do not utilize facial recognition software or license plate readers to detect excluded gamblers who enter the premises of the six Maryland casinos.
National Council on Problem Gambling Director Keith Whyte said self-exclusion lists are used in many states that allow casino gambling but the lists lack strong enforcement.
“I think it's very difficult for casinos to enforce,” Whyte said. “They get thousands of customers a day. You're never asked for identification when you start losing. In fact, you're never asked when you start to play. You can lose as much as you want without being identified."
A D.C.-area problem gambler told the News4 I-Team he frequently entered and departed casinos undetected in the months after joining the voluntary exclusion program. He said he hoped the program would help him combat his addiction and keep him out of the new MGM National Harbor casino.
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“I’m mad at myself for what I've done and I also feel disappointed that the program that I thought was there to help me isn't (helping),” he said.
There are several safeguards to help police, casino security and state regulators detect voluntary exclusion participants who enter casinos, state officials said. Federal regulations require winners show identification if they win more than $1,200. The voluntary exclusion program also prevents participants from using their players club cards or from cashing checks inside Maryland casinos.
Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency Responsible Gambling Coordinator Mary Drexler said participants are warned the voluntary exclusion program requires self-policing.
“In the application itself it says it straight out: You are really responsible for your own behavior," Drexler said.
The agency and Whyte said self-exclusion lists are only one tool to be utilized by addicted gamblers. Hotlines, treatment programs and Gamblers Anonymous are best used to fully combat an addiction, they said. The Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency provides information for how to obtain treatment and guidance in its enrollment packet for the voluntary exclusion program.
“Self-exclusion is a good program and can help some people, but unless it's surrounded by a more comprehensive program, it's unlikely to thoroughly help people, especially those with severe gambling problems," Whyte said.
The state is researching the use of license plate reader devices to detect the automobiles of gamblers enrolled in the self-exclusion program, Drexler said.
“It's just in the research stages,” she said. “There is nothing set in stone at this time, but we do think that may be one more avenue that may be helpful."
“We take every reasonable opportunity to ensure that people on the Voluntary Exclusion Program list are not on our property engaging in gaming," MGM said in a statement. "We do not ID every person through the door but we provide the photo and description for each person in the program to Surveillance and Security. We also upload it to into our Internal customer databases so as to flag any gaming activity under the person's name.”
“At Live! Casino, we take our responsibility to prevent problem gaming very seriously," a Maryland Live! spokeswoman said. "The State’s Voluntary Exclusion Program requires casinos to refrain from marketing directly to individuals who sign up for the program. It also places the responsibility for staying out of casinos on the program participants themselves. We support this effort on multiple levels, including using technology and security measures to identify and remove such players from our facility."
Anne Arundel County Police records show the agency has cited at least 43 people for violating the self-exlucsion list at Maryland Live! casino since January 2016.
“While it is the self-excluded individual’s responsibility to stay out of casinos, we deploy extensive measures to help ensure those who have entered the voluntary exclusion program are unable to gamble at our casino," a Horseshoe Casino spokesman said. "We maintain a database of self-excluded individuals, utilize information-technology platforms and conduct extensive team member training to help identify those who are violating the program’s conditions by visiting the casino. Consistent with the voluntary exclusion program’s terms –- and to deter future prohibited behavior on the part of self-excluded individuals –- we report all known violators to the local authorities to be charged with criminal trespassing.”
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.