PORTSMOUTH, Va. — As millions of people watch the madness in the NCAA basketball tournament, advocates are warning fans to watch their wallets.
Thousands of people are expected to place their bets for March Madness, and experts say they routinely notice a spike in calls for gambling addiction help.
"Instead of your drug being something you ingest, for gamblers your drug is money," said Carolyn Hawley, President of Virginia Council on Problem Gambling.
Hawley said gambling addiction can be just as powerful as substance abuse. Both addictions are progressive and nature, and can take a significant toll in several aspects of a person's life.
It's a problem, Hawley says has been increasing ever since Virginia legalized online sports betting.
"What we saw in 2021 the year that sports betting got launched we had a 357% increase in our call volume," said Hawley.
The problem is aggravated in March, where thousands of people break their brackets in hopes of matching what happens in the NCAA tournament. Advocates like Hawley said they specifically chose March as "Gambling Awareness Month' to combat the spike they see every year.
Addiction can take a variety of forms, but Hawley said it can depend on how quickly gamblers are both losing money and how often gamblers return to the table.
A tell-tale sign can be when gamblers start to "chase" after the money they have lost.
"Maybe you are having to borrow money to cover some of your gambling losses or even you are starting to chase your gambling meaning you lost some, and you are now using gambling as a way to win back the money you've lost," said Hawley.
If this behavior sounds familiar, Hawley said there is help available. You can call 1-888-532-3500, the Virginia Problem Gambling Helpline. It’s toll-free, confidential and available 24/7 via phone, text or chat. The Helpline is operated by the VCPG and is funded by the Virginia Lottery.