10/13/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
They would wait patiently for night, tuck their two kids into bed and, in the privacy of their study, give in to their demons. For a nightmarish six months last year, Andy and Lisa Harding, solid middle-class parents from Dublin, Calif., logged on to gambling Web sites and played slots, blackjack, craps and roulette late into the night, clicking away their savings and nearly sinking their family. "Soon I started gambling more than we were earning," says Lisa, 39, a retail store manager. "You don't realize what you're spending—betting is so easy."
The Hardings quickly ran up more than $100,000 in gambling debts, stopping only after they had maxed out their credit cards. Soon after, a bank that issued one of the credit cards sued them. Deviant as their dead-of-night sprees may seem, the Hardings are far from alone in their addiction. Since gambling's Internet debut in 1995 the number of Web sites offering round-the-clock gaming has risen from a handful to nearly 2,000, with the industry expected to rake in as much as $6 billion worldwide this year. According to a 2002 University of Connecticut study, at least 8 percent of those surveyed have gambled online; of them, 74 percent are believed to have a serious problem. "It's high-speed, flashy, alluring and promises something for nothing," says Angie Moore, manager of the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery. "Those are ingredients that lead to addictive behavior." Says Don Hulen, executive director of the Arizona Council on Compulsive Gambling: "You can't detect it the way you can detect alcoholics, yet compulsive gambling on the Internet can destroy lives as surely as any drug."
Like Internet porn, online gambling hooks users by offering unprecedented access and privacy. "You can bet in your own home, in your pajamas, 24 hours a day," says Andy Harding, 42, a sheet metal worker who occasionally visited casinos before joining his wife in betting online. While gambling anywhere but in legitimate venues is illegal in the U.S., the companies running gambling Web sites are based outside the country, which lets them skirt the law and solicit business here with tempting pop-up ads. Lisa Harding clicked on one such ad in March 2002, and at first bet only for fun. "Whenever I hit a jackpot, a message kept flashing:, 'Play for real! You could win real money!'" she says. "So I started betting with my credit card."
And it was oh so easy. All an online gambler has to do is type in a credit card number in order to instantly receive virtual chips. (The Hardings have brought a suit against their debtors, including Visa and Master-Card, claiming they violated state laws by handling betting transactions.) Operating almost entirely without regulation, the sites have made Internet gambling "an activity that preys on children, is rife with fraud and aids money laundering," claims Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has a pending bill that would ban credit card companies from accepting charges for such gaming. "It ruins credit ratings and allows young people to build up thousands of dollars in debts on their parents' cards."
In fact, few sites have any effective mechanisms to block minors from gambling. One recent national survey of 14- to 22-year-olds by the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Adolescent Risk Communication found that 11 percent of males admitted to gambling online, up dramatically from just a few years earlier. "A lot of the Internet gambling Web sites entice you in like a video game, so the whole format is really seductive to kids," says George Meldrum, director of special projects at the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems. "And the earlier the onset of an activity, the more likely you are to become addicted."
Take the case of John, who was only 12 when he gambled for the first time, wagering on himself in a golf match. But his gambling only became a major problem 11 years later, after he switched to online betting in his apartment while at the University of Utah. "I bet every day for two years and gambled away all my tuition money," says the banking officer, now 26, who does not want his real name used. "Basically, I was out of control." He lost about $40,000, somehow graduated from college and seven months later joined Gamblers Anonymous.
Traditionally, around 95 percent of people who seek treatment for gambling problems are men. But since the advent of online gambling, experts have seen a spike in the number of women looking for help. "Now the numbers are closer to 40 percent women," says Nancy Petry, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center and a researcher for the 2002 study. "Typically, women are seeking relief from boredom and loneliness. And the betting is all on their credit card so they don't see the damage until a month later."
Fredia Mendick, 53, knew all about that damage long before she discovered online gambling. Convicted of embezzling $120,000 from her former employer, an attorney, to pay for her casino gambling habit in the late '80s and early '90s, she served 14 months in prison. After that she managed not to gamble for nine years—until she clicked on a pop-up ad in 2000 and got sucked right back in. "It got so I could hardly wait for my husband to go to work," says Mendick. "I played keno all day until he came home." Finally, three months later, Mike Mendick, 60, a computer administrator in Phoenix, noticed $11,000 was missing from their bank account. He came home early one day to investigate—and surprised his wife gambling online. "I was furious," he says. "Any safety net we had built up was gone and our credit rating went to hell."
Mike persuaded his wife to enter therapy and dismantled their computer. Today the terminal is back in the living room of the couple's home in Avondale, a Phoenix suburb. Every once in a while, a gambling ad pops up while Fredia is online, "but I just know that I can't do it," she says. "It's so easy that, to sick people like me, it's destructive. It destroys families."
Andy and Lisa Harding flirted with just such a fate. At first they hid their online gambling from their two sons, now 14 and 6. Soon the children caught on, but thought it was just a game. Just before the Hardings were sued, the truth emerged. "It took its toll on our boys for them to see us so stressed and upset," says Lisa.
While they await hearings on the lawsuits, the Hardings are dealing with their devastated credit—and their deep shame. "I think about our life before, and I wonder how things got so bad so quick," says Andy. "I put my family in danger. Who knows what's going to happen?" That, he surely realizes now, is anyone's bet.
Ron Arias in Los Angeles, Melissa Morrison in Phoenix, Andrea Billups in Washington, D.C., Shermakaye Bass in Austin, Caroline Howard in New York City and Sam Jemielity in Chicago