Page last updated at 13:05 GMT, Wednesday, 7 June 2006 14:05 UK

Britain's streets of debt: Losing it online

Elaine Churchill and daughter Luisa
It didn't seem like real money, it wasn't like handing over wads of cash if you were to go into a casino

Roulette, blackjack, poker. The world of gambling used to be the preserve of the privileged few but now we can all access it easily from the comfort of our own home.

Online gambling is sweeping the country. Four million of us play each month.

It is making millionaires out of the entrepreneurs who run the companies. Last year the industry made £5.2 billion. But it is also putting more and more of us at risk of serious debt.

The average online gambling debt in Britain is £25,000.

Free bet offer

Elaine Churchill, 38, started gambling online when she was at home on maternity leave with her daughter Luisa.

She would log on while Luisa was having a nap and one day she took up the offer of $50 free bets.

Before she knew it, she was hooked. She started playing with real money.

"The money didn't seem real because it was transferred by bank transfer or credit cards. It didn't seem like real money, it wasn't like handing over wads of cash if you were to go into a casino."

The money didn't seem real because it was transferred by bank transfer or credit cards
Elaine Churchill, Gambled away £45,000

She was living a secret life that her husband Gary knew nothing about, using every spare moment when he was not at home to gamble.

At first she was winning, but success did not last. Elaine began to get into serious debt, but she did not stop gambling.

"I thought there was some way I could possibly win the money back," she says.

"I just kept on thinking I've got to recoup my losses, even if it means borrowing more money."

Elaine ended up £45,000 in debt.

When she finally revealed it to her husband, she thought it would end her marriage.

Gary threw her out of the house, devastated by all the secrecy and lies.

They are now back together, making a go of things.

I kept wanting to stop but as soon as I could get hold of some more money, I was back on it
Neil Humphreys, internet gambling addict

They had to re-mortgage their two-bedroom flat to pay back Elaine's debts, and a year on, still can not afford to go on holiday or get a new car.

Gambling Act

It is currently illegal to run an internet gambling operation in Britain, but that is about to change.

A new Gambling Act will open the door for companies to set up here from next year.

According to the government it will ensure that they are strictly regulated.

But some, like Ian Semel from the gambling charity Gordon House, believe it will lead to an even bigger increase in the number of online gamblers and create more addicts with serious debts.

Gordon House is the only residential clinic for gambling addicts. In the last five years, it has seen a 60% increase in applications, mainly due to online gambling.

"People can come to us having lost houses, which can involve £200,000 or £300,000, they can run up credit card debts in the thousands," Mr Semel says.

Former postman Neil Humphreys checked himself in after amassing debts of £16,000 - the same amount as he earned in a year.

His gambling hobby became an addiction when he discovered internet casinos. It nearly destroyed his life.

"It just seemed to get hold of me," he says.

"I actually tried to get rid of my computer at one point but then I started going to internet cafes and I was doing it there, so I couldn't get away from it.

"I kept wanting to stop but as soon as I could get hold of some more money, I was back on it."

Mr Humphreys tried closing his accounts with the online sites he was gambling on.

But that did not work. He received emails and phone calls offering him free bets.

In the end, he took up an offer of $250 free bets and started gambling again.

Having lost everything, he is now surviving on benefits. It will take him 10 years to pay his debts back.

Huge growth

It is hard to ignore the existence of internet gambling.

There are advertisements everywhere you go - on billboards, in tube trains, in taxis.

It is now so aggressively marketed that even the government has stepped in to curb advertisers.

A hand operating a mouse
Online gambling is enjoying massive growth

In February, it banned an ad for for using slogans and images which appealed to under 18s.

It says it will go further and ban all companies which are not properly regulated from advertising.

But at present the advertising onslaught continues - from multi-million pound sponsorship deals with Premier League football clubs to branded snooker tournaments and sporting heroes sporting company logos.

Online gambling is forecast to grow by 22% this year, and with it the number of punters with serious debts.

The industry pays £3m into a trust to deal with the issue of problem gambling.

A drop in the ocean, says Ian Semel from Gordon House, considering how much profit they make.

"I know that that's not enough to deal with the problem in this country now, and in the future it certainly won't be," he says.

"Because what we're going to create is more problem gamblers - and that's an absolute certainty."

Losing It Online, the fourth of five programmes on Britain's Streets of Debt, was broadcast on BBC One on Thursday 8 June at 0915 and here online.

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