ONLINE gamblers showing signs of compulsive betting could soon be sent targeted warning messages to their mobile phones, amid concerns that half of Scots calling a national helpline now bet remotely.

New research to be published this week by the national charity GambleAware will indicate that information collected by software companies that operate gambling websites can be used to accurately profile people with a potential problem and predict harmful patterns.

The charity, whose £8 million annual income is funded almost entirely by the gambling industry, was set up to minimise gambling-related harm and works with the regulator, the Gambling Commission, to research, educate and treat problem gamblers.

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The study, costing more than £100,000, will form the basis of a new push to create complex algorithms which identify “risky” behaviour and prompt intervention by the UK’s 1,074 operators with a licence to offer remote gambling.

Iain Corby, the charity's Deputy Chief Executive, said: “Around 40 per cent of gambling is now done online and of course 80 per cent of the population now have smart phones so, they are carrying around a casino in their pockets.

“Clearly, all forms of gambling are risky but the real challenge with online gambling is there is nobody physically supervising you. There is nobody watching your reactions or monitoring your emotions. So, detecting when somebody is getting into trouble is a lot more difficult.

“We’ve been doing a lot of research which we’ll be publishing this week looking at whether the data that gambling companies already hold about their customers in terms of how they play online – their play data – can give us any clues to help spot people before they get into trouble.

“Companies do have a lot of data about how and when people are betting and how they react to wins and losses which will give a really good idea if there should be concern about someone. Then they could do something for those customers such as send them a message or give them a call to make sure they don’t drift towards a gambling addiction.

“We’ve spent several hundreds of thousands of pounds on that research which will be a foundation of knowledge on which operators will be able to build systems to detect when people are getting into trouble.”

The industry in the UK is broken down into six sectors – arcades and gaming machines, betting, bingo, casinos, lotteries, and remote and gambling software – which are all regulated and licensed by the Gambling Commission.

Remote gaming, which is defined by legislation as gambling using the internet, telephone, television and radio, is the fastest-growing sector and now accounts for almost 50 per cent of Gross Gambling Yield in Great Britain, totalling £13.8bn.

Clive Hawkswood, chief executive of the Remote Gambling Association, the trade association for the online industry, said some sites do have existing warning systems but admitted it “varies from company to company”.

He said: “The research will show the most reliable markers of harm and then we can go back to every operator and say: “Right, whatever you’re currently using, go back and check that it includes those, and if you don’t have anything, do something and make sure it includes those. That will get everyone up to the same standard of the analytics of trying to spot indications of harmful play.”

A national helpline set up by treatment service GamCare, funded by GambleAware, now receives more than 50 calls a month from desperate Scots who have become addicted. More than half of the callers were between the ages of 18 and 35 and the main gambling facilities disclosed were online (49 per cent), followed by betting shops (37 per cent). There are fears that young people who may never go to bookmakers are becoming addicted to online betting.

Corby said: “There are some theories which suggest people’s ability to process risk develops later in life so there is a psychological underpinning to the concern that younger people may make more rash decisions, but I think more important is the blurring of the lines between computer games and gambling.

“We are seeing a new generation growing up quite used to playing games on their phones and tablets but a lot of these games have very similar characteristics to gambling. What we don’t have the evidence for at the moment is whether this is actually going to create a bigger problem in the future. We certainly need to be extremely vigilant that we are not storing up trouble for the future.

“From a public health perspective we’re watching extremely carefully. We’re in fact going to devote our annual conference this year to the question of young people and gambling.”

Problem gambling is defined as ‘gambling to a degree which compromises, disrupts or damages family, personal or recreational pursuits.’

Around 37,000 Scots (0.7 per cent of the population) identify as problem gamblers according to the most recent figures published in 2015 by the Gambling Commission. However, statistics published by the Scottish Government show 0.3 per cent of Scots had a gambling problem in 2015.

Corby said the figures seem “extremely low” and questioned the methodology. He added: “When we talk to regular gamblers we see a higher percentage with a problem than these figures would suggest when you look at the population as a whole.”

Another solution offered to problem gamblers is self-exclusion but it involves a voluntary opt out at each website. From January, gamblers will have the option to self-exclude from all sites using one form. Operators will be centrally linked to the scheme.

The project is being delivered by the Remote Gambling Association and will be a condition of license regulated by the Gambling Commission.

A spokesman for the Commission said: “We have insisted that the industry puts into place a new national online self-exclusion scheme. The new scheme, which we have been informed will be in place before 2018, will enable online customers to self-exclude with all operators licensed by us via single website. This website will also signpost to specialist support and advice services to assist those people trying to manage their gambling.”

The RGA’s Clive Hawkswood said: “It should be very highly effective, almost foolproof. The only issue is it actually deals with the problem after it’s happened. That’s why the analytics work for the online sector is important. If we can stop as many of these people before they develop the problem, then have the self-exclusion as a safety net, that would be a much better way of doing it.”

GamCare’s helpline provides confidential advice, information and emotional support to anyone experiencing problems with gambling. Speak to an advisor by calling freephone 0808 8020 133, 8am to midnight, seven days a week.

“My worst day was when I lost £12,000 in one night playing online poker…that was money I’d saved for a deposit on a flat…”

Gamblers Anonymous Scotland offers peer support meetings and a twelve step programme of recovery to hundreds of compulsive gamblers. Members have revealed their struggle with addiction to the Sunday Herald on the condition that their names are not published.

“My worst day was when I lost £12,000 in one night playing online poker,” said one member. “I got a warning message from the game but that was after I’d spent all the money. That was money I’d saved for a deposit on a flat. I remember the despair and the shame and the guilt when the sun came up the next day.

“I would gamble daily. Sometimes I would be on the computer for hours, sometimes 10 minutes. Sometimes I’d go in and go light but sometimes I’d have less time and bet a lot. More often than not it wouldn’t go my way. I worked out that I probably lost around £70,000 in five years.

“In our meetings [Gamblers Anonymous] we say you can’t smell the cards on people’s breath. It’s a reference to the difference between addiction to alcohol and gambling. You won’t see someone staggering around the street after losing £12,000 but it’s every bit as damaging.

“Gambling addiction can be a very private thing, particularly online. You’re just not seeing people face to face. You can’t be recognised. There must be a system which gets in the way of people’s gambling before they break the bank because online gambling is a growing problem.

“It seems to be more accepted by society. Gambling is fun for a lot of people, the same as drinking, but the despair, shame, guilt and suicidal thoughts that some people experience hasn’t been taken into consideration as online gambling becomes more accessible. You don’t even need a computer or a laptop now. You can do it anywhere, by bringing out your phone. Everything is on there. And it never closes – it’s open 24/7.”

Another member of Gamblers Anonymous began betting in pubs before “progressing” to online gaming.

He said: “I started gambling in my late teens with slot machines in pubs and those daft quiz machines. I never thought that I had a problem even though at the time I could be standing at the machines for one or two hours while my mates all sat down and had a laugh.

“I used to pile money into those machines when I was out though my mates would urge me to leave them alone and come enjoy my night out. I never thought anything of it putting 20, 40, or 60 [pounds] in and getting nothing back. I progressed from there to online gambling as it was so easy I didn't have to leave the comfort of my house and I could even use my phone when I was on the go.

“It didn't take a big loss – although I had my fair share of them – to come to Gamblers Anonymous, I was found out by my girlfriend looking at my bank statements and seeing where all my wages were going every month. It was destroying my life and the people I cared about most around me.”

If you are having a problem controlling your gambling you can speak to a Gamblers Anonymous member by calling 0370 050 8881.