Pam Mutton, photo: Paul Jeffers
Financial counsellor Pam Mutton gives Inside gambling the lowdown on a job she finds immensely satisfying – helping people with gambling problems get back in the black and stay there.
What's a standard day for you?
I usually have face-to-face appointments with up to three clients. For new clients, the first thing we do is work out exactly how much debt they have. Financial counselling can be very confronting for clients because it's often the first time they've sat down and really looked at their financial position.
I also see partners and family members of people whose gambling has often put the house at risk. Problem gambling isn't yet regarded by society as an illness like drugs and alcohol, so most people tend to hide it from their family and friends.
How do you deal with secrecy in relationships?
When there's a situation where I need to get a partner's permission to advocate on their behalf for a joint debt, I try to get both people in the room and the financial position out in the open. These can be really tough conversations because sometimes the partner has no idea their loved one has a gambling problem or large debts. It's important we work with therapeutic counsellors to help them with those emotions.
What are some of the practical ways you help clients?
Financial counselling work really starts when the client walks out the door. For each client, I can write letters to up to 15 creditors. I start out doing quite a detailed statement of position, looking at a client's income, where their money goes and what debts they have. From there, we look at their options for repaying the debt, and also the legalities of the loans.
Problem gambling isn't yet regarded as an illness like drugs and alcohol, so most people tend to hide it from their family and friends.
One option is bankruptcy, but often there are assets to protect and it is not the best option. After assessing the situation, we can also go to the Financial Ombudsman or the Credit Ombudsman, who can ascertain whether the banks or creditors have behaved poorly in their lending practices. If we feel any laws or regulations have been broken in lending the money in the first place, a complaint can also be made to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. However, we arrive at most outcomes through negotiation and advocacy on behalf of clients.
How does your work fit in with therapeutic counselling?
It's very rare to be able to do just a little bit of work and never see a client again. There's no quick fix for most clients. You may set up a payment plan, but if they are not seeing a gambling counsellor and getting some control strategies, they often end up in financial difficulties again. That's why it's so important we work hand in hand with therapeutic counsellors, to make sure the client is getting emotional support as well as help with their finances.
What has changed since you first started counselling?
At the moment about one in three of my clients are sports betting consumers. It's really growing, especially in young men. I have one client who has spent more than $800,000 in two years on credit cards through online gambling. In one day he put 127 bets on. The sports betting agency never contacted him to see if he had a problem or needed help.
A client I saw recently had a phone call out of the blue from a betting agency he'd never had an account with, offering him credit and free bets. The sports betting companies are unregulated credit providers because they don't charge interest and there are no assets securing the loan.
There's a view in the community that payday lenders are a poverty problem, but that's not what I see. I have a well-paid professional client at the moment who has loans with 11 payday lenders. Payday lender marketing has now moved to middle-class advertising.
In one day he put 127 bets on. The sports betting agency never contacted him to see if he had a problem or needed help
Another recent client had an online gaming addiction and spent real money to buy credits or lives in a game. She really struggled to come to terms with the fact she was spending real money to get pretend money, which she had no way of cashing out. She came to see me with about $25,000 debt.
What changes would you like to see made to the gambling industry?
The constant barrage of inducements to gamble is a real danger for most clients. I give clients a form to fill out and send off to self-exclude from sports betting agencies. They might self-exclude from A, and then see an ad for B and sign up. Or they might self-exclude from all of them and then see an ad for a new agency and sign up. Financial counsellors have asked for a national self-exclusion register.
I'd also like to see a ban from uploading money to sports betting accounts from credit cards.
She really struggled to come to terms with the fact she was spending real money to get pretend money, which she had no way of cashing out.
I think sports betting companies should be nationally regulated and have to pay a portion of their profits into a community benefits fund like poker machine operators do. There needs to be more transparency on what they're turning over and paying.
The other thing that needs to disappear is in-play gambling. As soon as the horses go into the barriers, the bets should be off. As soon as the players walk onto the field in any sport, the bets should be off.
What keeps you getting out of bed in the morning?
This is the only job I've ever had where I can be surprised every day. One of my clients came to see me owing money on 15 credit cards, three personal loans and a home loan. It was a lot of work, but we ended up saving their house from being repossessed and got them back on track financially. That's really satisfying.
We're often the first people to see where the new credit harm is coming from, long before the legislators or the lawyers find out about it.