For National Debt Awareness Week, Beacon Counselling Trust and Betknowmore UK have come together to explore how people are affected by someone else’s gambling debts. Compulsive gambling can lead to credit card and bank debt, payday loans, debts owed to illegal moneylenders and debts owed to family, friends and work colleagues, and sometimes result in fraud and theft. The impacts for the gambler can range from homelessness, when mortgages or rent go unpaid, to job loss, to insolvency and bankruptcy when loans go unpaid. Less extreme impacts may simply be an inability to afford essential items such as food, transport and heating for the home, while new clothes, socialising and holidays may be the first things to go. What is less understood is the impact of gambling debt on those close to the gambler. The partners of gamblers are usually women and to support the recovery of the gambler, they are often advised to take control of all the household finances, removing from the gambler their access to money. This places an administrative and emotional burden on ‘affected others’, whose own credit rating can be impacted for many years and who may have no idea how and when to pass back financial control. Often gambling harms cause relationships to breakdown between partners and within families, but the financial consequences for everyone can persist for many years after the ties are broken.
To explore these issues, Betknowmore UK’s Research and Evaluation Manager, Liz Riley, got together with Beacon Counselling Trust’s Families Link Worker, Nicola Jaques, to explore the immediate and longer-term impacts of gambling debt and financial harms. Nicola is the former wife of a compulsive gambler and below are extracts of her conversation with Liz.
Liz: What were the immediate debt and financial issues you faced when you found out about your ex-husband’s gambling addiction?
Nicola: In the first instance it was his debts I was made aware of, so credit cards, payday loans and other loans, amounting to £40,000, with another £45,000 owing to his parents. What I didn’t know at that time was there was another £30,000 in my name that I was personally liable for. That was one of the hardest things to take as I was working part-time and had had two back-to-back periods of maternity leave, just receiving statutory maternity pay. In my name, using my credit rating, he’d taken out car finance, credit cards and a personal bank loan of £17,000. He’d used the joint account to apply for that loan in my name, which was approved by the bank in four hours and spent by him in two weeks. Just the payments on the loan were nearly £400 per month and yet the bank asked no questions.
The only reason it all came out was because a text message flashed up on his phone from a payday loan company saying they would take a payment in the next few days and I recognised the last three numbers of our joint account. When I asked him, he said it was spam, but the message showed the last three number of our bank account, so I didn’t think that could be right. I did something I’d not done for ages and I took my phone to the downstairs loo and I attempted to log in to online banking, but it wouldn’t let me log in. I had to go through a whole process on my phone to access the bank account, while he was hovering outside the door. When I finally got into the account, that was my first vision of the gambling, with all the transactions plain to see. The words that came out my mouth when I spoke to him were, “Have you got a gambling problem?”, but as I was saying them I was thinking I don’t even know if there is such a thing. He was still in denial, but when I said we needed to tell his parents, that’s when he said that they already knew about it. He’d managed to manipulate his mum to be a guarantor of a payday loan and they had also given him money to pay off quite a substantial bit of his debt, which he’d instead used to carry on gambling. My parents got involved too but he just wanted to ask them for money, even suggesting that my grandma give him money.
Liz: So when you began to deal with all the debts, how was that process?
Nicola: The first thing was the bank, was the joint bank account. I took steps to protect my own personal account, which he’d also been raiding, and I made sure that all the main bills were being paid, but I couldn’t get his access to the joint bank account stopped. I explained to the bank that his access to money would make things worse for him, but they said he would have to come with me to the bank and agree to giving me full control of the finances, but he wouldn’t do that. At that time, he'd abstained from gambling but after three weeks he started again, and he decided to leave. I was still financially tied to him and so the bank account was still active and he just applied for new cards so he could use it. Then there was the Sky account – I couldn’t cancel it because it was in his name. So he stopped paying it but all the red letters were coming to our family home and I couldn’t have his name removed from my address or cancel the membership.
It’s traumatising every time you see one of these red letters land on the door mat. Even the utility bills, the gas and electric, which were in his name, I couldn’t just get switched into my name. To get that changed was a really long and difficult process, taking a huge toll on my time when I was working full time, had two very young children on my own and had a marriage in tatters. None of it was simple and there was no recognition or allowance for the trauma I was experiencing. All of the demands for repayment were landing at my door. Even with the car, I was having to make the repayments even though he had it and was getting lots of tickets and fines at the time. I decided I wasn’t having it – it was an injustice, so I started to fight it all, sitting in tribunals to get speeding and parking fines cleared, explaining what the story was because they had not waved the fines when I initially appealed. With the personal bank loan, I took it all the way to the Financial Ombudsman because it wasn’t right that the bank allowed him to take out that loan in my name when I clearly couldn’t afford the repayments and there was no proper paperwork for the loan. All of this meant my credit rating was trashed and I knew that he was going to go bankrupt so I had to protect myself as much as I could.
The other thing was that I wasn’t allowed to speak to his employer, to speak to occupational health at his work and let them know what was going on. They clearly had signs of what was going on and they eventually did the worst thing possible and made him redundant and paid him off, with a golden tax-free handshake that would have cleared all the debts and allowed me and the kids to stay in the home, but he gambled it all away and then he went bankrupt. I only found out about the payment during the financial proceedings in court for our divorce, and I didn’t even get any legal aid to help me through the divorce process, meaning I had another £12,500 in legal bills.
Liz: And how have things changed now? What are the enduring harms you still have to deal with?
Nicola: I also had to come to a financial arrangement regarding the restrictions put on the property. I’m fortunate that my family could help me out, but other people don’t have that help. I have to deal with legacy guilt, knowing that my parents’ retirement is not how they wanted it to be. By shear good luck we were down on the house deeds as ‘tenants in common’, rather than the more usual ‘joint tenants’ and that meant that I could protect my half of the house value from the insolvency company. I had to buy back my own financial security, because otherwise we would have been homeless. Dealing with the bankruptcy and insolvency services was a really hard and patronising process. People believe you’re complicit, they cannot believe that you didn’t know about it, they cannot understand how it’s possible to not be aware of it. They have no understanding of how deep the manipulation is and how far someone with a gambling addiction will go to hide things. Even the bank manager said to me, “You must have known”. My ex was burning the mail for five years and had multiple email accounts, that way the trail was paperless.
As soon as he declared himself bankrupt, that was him done, but my fight carried on because I refused to take out an IVA [individual voluntary arrangement – an alternative to bankruptcy]. He got more help than I did and those systems that supported him did so in such a way that they enabled him to carry on gambling. Even finally when I had a new house lined up for me and kids, the mortgage application was rejected because the bank had only removed the personal loan from some credit files and not from others, even though the Ombudsman found in my favour and made them write-off the loan. To get my credit record cleared quickly so I wouldn’t lose the new house, I had to appeal to the CEO of the bank! Every time you think to yourself, is there something I don’t know about that he’s done? This is one of the things that stays with you.
Another legacy is the feeling of failure. I come from a family of savers, brought up to pay my bills, manage my money, save money for the future. I had to come to terms with losing all of that and feeling like I had failed, and all because I trusted my husband.
Liz: Did you find there was any help for you during all of this?
Nicola: Systems are not set up to help people like me. I decided to fight it but I can see why other people would say, I can’t do this anymore and accept an IVA to make all the demands go away. But people don’t understand that the IVA is their legacy harm, because it will stay with them for years. But people shouldn’t have to be forced into that because of harms caused by the gambling industry. There’s no help there for people like me except advice to take out an IVA. It’s not that the organisations I dealt with were bad, they just didn’t understand gambling harms – no understanding what it’s like to live in a home where someone is gambling and the things that person does to access money. It’s not as simple as cutting off their supply of money. It’s great when the gambler wants to engage in recovery, but for a lot of us out there, that simply doesn’t happen. For those people, the financial harms mean that they have to make a choice of whether to keep that person close to them or to break all ties. Financial security means you have to choose whether to stay or go. It shouldn’t have to be that way. The family members are punished by the system just for being associated with the gambler.
Even when I went to the Financial Ombudsman, I asked them if they recorded whether gambling played a role in the cases they were dealing with and they said no. That would have helped me in my case against the bank. There’s a clear failing here of the financial institutions. It would be easy to capture that really useful data about gambling. The system doesn’t recognise the full extent of the harms and that also means that when there are cases of fraud and theft, families also end up choosing to stay silent – they don’t want to make things even worse for the person addicted to gambling, especially if they are young or if they have kids themselves. Also if they choose to report the crime, the family member has to enter a criminal justice system that doesn’t recognise gambling harms. All the really hard choices fall on the family members. The focus is all on the gambler as the person who is ill with the addiction and you make allowances for them, but I want to highlight all the gaps that mean there is no real support for the family members who are faced with dire financial consequences. The dots haven’t yet been joined up between gambling harms and the processes and policies of organisations such as the Ombudsman, social services, the banks, because there’s no screening for gambling harms and so they don’t take any of the responsibility. This is what motivates me now because we could reduce the harms if everyone started to ask about gambling harms, rather than just allowing the consequences to fall on families through encouraging them to accept IVAs and allowing them to hold the shame and consequences of something they didn’t do.
Liz: What advice do you have for people currently going through what you experienced?
Nicola: I’d say to them “Put on your own breathing mask first”. You have the right to feel safe, and emotionally and financially secure. It is important to protect yourself from any harm that may arise from your family member or friend’s problem with gambling. You cannot force your family member or friend to acknowledge that their gambling is a problem. You cannot force them to stop gambling. No matter what you say or do, ultimately the only person who can stop gambling is the gambler.Remember, that the gambling is the problem, not the person and you are not to blame for their behaviour.
If you are financially associated with your loved one who has a gambling disorder, then it is important to protect yourself as well. Signing yourself up to gambling blocks can be helpful as well as opening up and looking into your own credit report accounts and financial history. Put blocks on your own bank cards and accounts, take control of any joint accounts or even close them down, as well as taking over the household finances. Consider setting up new bank accounts to prioritise your own financial security. In the long run this will help to protect your future and anyone else’s who may be directly affected by the consequences of gambling addiction. Seek professional advice about how to protect your family’s assets and income. Do not lend the gambler money and do not pay the gambler’s debts.Decide if you can manage the gambler’s money. If not, you may need to maintain separate bank accounts and credit cards. Remove your name from joint accounts to avoid inheriting the gambler’s debt. A gambling counsellor can help you avoid a bad credit history if you have joint credit or loans with the gambler. Check the mail yourself for bills and keep records of all finances including assets, income, expenses, contributions and gifts. Photocopy (and keep in a safe place) copies of important documents such as house title, marriage and birth certificates, and tax file numbers. Don’t sign anything you don’t understand or are not prepared to pay for, and finally, do not lend personal financial details or credit cards or share pin numbers, or leave that information where it can be found.
If you need help with any of the issues raised, please contact Beacon Counselling Trust or Betknowmore UK. Other organisations, such as Step Change and the CAB, can also provide advice on how to manage gambling debt.
Get help for a loved one or someone you know who is suffering from gambling-related harm.