Don’t get stuck in the loan shark trap

An average of three persons per week go to Caritas with usury problems, having borrowed money at very high interest rates.

The Journal explores the topic of usury in an interview with Caritas Malta Director Anthony Gatt.

UEFA Euro 2024 matches are currently taking place. Do you see any difference in the number of people seeking help from Caritas for addiction issues during this period?

While we’re not witnessing a surge in Caritas arrivals during this period, we’re aware that this is a high-risk period. People struggling with addiction may experience a stimulus overdose, leading to relapse. This is similar to how someone prone to heavy drinking might find Christmas particularly challenging. Anticipating potential struggles, some addicts might proactively seek help from Caritas before the celebrations begin. At Caritas, we see a significant number of individuals seeking support for gambling addiction. We offer two key resources to help them. First, there’s ‘Gamblers Anonymous’, a weekly support group meeting. Additionally, we offer another service that, while not directly focused on gambling, proves particularly helpful for those struggling with gambling addiction, especially when facing financial difficulties linked to usury. For those battling gambling addiction, the thoughts of gambling can become constant; they wake up and sleep thinking about gambling.

Caritas Malta Director, Anthony Gatt. Photo: Emeline Travers.

What psychological differences are there between drug addiction and gambling addiction?

Betting problems are more “treatment resistant”, meaning that overcoming a gambling addiction is more difficult than a drug addiction. One of the reasons is that the games are very accessible and you do not have authorities limiting you. When you use a substance, you can be caught by law, whereas responsibility for gaming lies more with the individual.

Are there people who are more susceptible than others?

Gambling stories often mirror those of drug addiction. The trends usually begin in youth, continue into a person’s forties, and worsen over time. Gambling significantly increases dopamine and serotonin levels in the body, chemicals associated with pleasure. Winning causes a surge of these chemicals. Individuals recovering from substance abuse often turn to gambling after rehabilitation. The excitement of winning can trigger similar positive feelings as drug use, leading to a new form of addiction. Another common experience involves earning a salary, gambling, winning, and then continuing to play until everything is lost. After losing all their money, they look for ways to get more money to try to win back what they lost. This cycle is known as “chasing losses”.

Is this temporary pleasure rush felt during gambling only?

No. When a person loses and tries to recover money, they might ask family members or even speak to a parish priest. The process of finding someone to lend them money, often using manipulation, is part of the excitement. This whole experience stimulates their excitement. Similar to drug addicts who feel a certain thrill from the anticipation of injecting heroin, gamblers feel excitement from the entire process.

How many usury cases do you see at Caritas?

Around three persons a week approach Caritas with usury problems. These are problematic and pathological cases, which have come home to the wall. Apart from those approaching for help, there is much more of this problem in society. Caritas intervenes in cases of usury by acting as a mediator between the borrower and the lender. This mediation helps establish a fair repayment plan. It’s important to remember that Maltese law restricts interest rates on loans to a maximum of 8%. Usury typically involves significantly higher interest rates, putting borrowers under undue financial strain. Our intermediary assures the lender that he or she will take the money, but not with that amount of interest. They come up with a payment schedule. It nevertheless remains a challenging issue. For instance, we are familiar with heartbreaking family stories where, after paying off the borrower’s debt, the borrower believes the problem is resolved and resumes gambling.

Are you noticing any new trends?

Social workers in schools on behalf of Caritas have noticed a new phenomenon: many youths and children are starting to play virtual games from an early age. Although this isn’t inherently wrong, some spend money to buy virtual points to advance in the game. Additionally, some adolescents have access to their parents’ credit cards, and parental supervision seems to be decreasing.

So, you have young people who are already well-acquainted with online games, exposing them to various risks. It’s important to note that there’s a distinction between those who have friends at school and a supportive family environment, and those who lack supervision and spend excessive time on the computer.

There are individuals with limited supervision who may experience depression or anxiety, seeking online activities as a means of comfort. It’s worth noting that psychological experts recommend children spend no more than two hours daily in front of a screen — a guideline that is often disregarded today.

Another emerging trend is seen in workplaces where many employees spend substantial sums on gambling activities, with those who spend the most often winning the pool. Additionally, there’s a phenomenon in online shopping services offering steep discounts, where spending a specified amount earns a voucher to double expenditures. Although not gambling or gaming, this practice can foster addiction by stimulating pleasure-inducing brain chemicals.

Of course, there are individuals who engage in gaming purely for entertainment purposes, setting a budget and adhering to it even in the face of losses.

Main photo: Wolrider Yurtseven

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