The National Council for Problem Gambling recently came to an agreement with its New Jersey affiliate to use 1-800-GAMBLER as a national helpline. The ink was barely dry on the deal before the Florida affiliate’s executive director lambasted the deal.
Jennifer Kruse is the leader of the Florida Council on Problem Gambling. She’s also an outspoken critic of the NCPG’s effort to “harmonize the nation’s many gambling addiction support lines.” Kruse is concerned people in crisis won’t reach the correct call center and not receive the help they need.
She described the plan as “grossly negligent” and dangerous when commenting on the situation to PlayFL.
A look at the Plan for the new, unified hotline
Next month, the NCPG plans to start using 1-800-GAMBLER in its materials. It encourages casinos to do the same for multi-state advertising, per an agreement with the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey announced on June 9.
Two large entities like the plan
NCPG executive director Keith Whyte believes it’s the best option for people to remember where to dial when they need help. The idea is backed by both the American Gaming Association and the National Football League.
Before the agreement, the national number was the unmemorable 1-800-522-4700. And most of the 27 state-operated call centers are reachable through even harder-to-remember hotline numbers.
Florida’s has one of the few memorable helpline numbers
But Florida may be the exception to the old rule. The helpline number in the Sunshine State is 1-888-ADMIT-IT, which is also easy to remember. Kruse believes it’s important that their number remains the same to stay prominent across the state.
Area code plan presents problems for many
However, callers who dial 1-800-GAMBLER and 1-800-522-4700 are routed to the call center in the state of their area code regardless of where they are located. In other words, callers to Florida’s helpline will always get Kruse’s call center.
“It sounds great in theory,” said Kruse. “Like, ‘Oh, hey, let’s advertise one national number,’ and it is great in a state where there’s not a state-specific service. But in states where there is a state helpline, it’s counterproductive. It causes problems.”
Nobody from the NCPG replied to PlayFL’s request for comment. But during an online symposium in early June, after the NCPG-New Jersey deal was announced, NCPG director of programs Jaime Costello touted the new arrangement as the first stage of a broader modernization plan.
NCPG will use donation money to try and upgrade the current apparatus
The NCPG will use $2 million of a $6 million donation from the NFL to improve a fractured helpline system. The current system results in a confusing muddle of multiple phone numbers on multistate casino advertisements during sports broadcasts.
“I think a lot of folks think that we’re just taking over 1-800-GAMBLER and that’s our modernization, but in reality, that’s only part of it,” said Costello during a Zoom session with affiliates. “Harmonizing those numbers is part of it, but [it is also about] the ability to make sure the technology is really smooth, and people get where they need to go… [And] we want to make sure that we are supporting staff, answering these calls, we’re supporting call centers and giving them the resources, they need. Whether it’s staff training and access to consistent training across the board support… And so we’re really trying to figure out the best way to bring all of those people together.”
Much of the discussion on Zoom was about concerns related to people getting routed to states they’re not in. Since area codes are not always tied to location anymore, people could end up with the wrong hotline.
NCPG can’t use Geolocation to solve the area code problem
However, Whyte insisted they are working to solve that issue.
It is only legal for 911 to route calls based on geolocation because of privacy issues. The Federal Communications Commission can change that with an exemption. But so far, they haven’t even done that for the soon-to-be live National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
“The solution is to do a better job of transferring [calls],” said Whyte. “We have the direct-dial number for every single call center on the network. So, if a call is misdirected for whatever reason, people in the network have an instant list where they can directly transmit that call.”
Alice Ostapiuk, the office manager for the New Jersey affiliate, followed that up by insisting the system will remain “state-centric.” But they’re “just looking for a way to funnel the calls to the appropriate place.”
Kruse believes the problem can’t be solved, is exacerbated in Florida
Yet Kruse says there’s no way for that to happen since they cannot sort and forward calls based on geolocation.
“They have no ability to do what it is that they say they’re doing,” said Kruse. “I mean, you can’t change the geotargeting limitations. Those things exist, and there’s no workaround for them.”
The concerns about help-seekers with out-of-state cell phone numbers is especially significant in Florida. It’s one of the most popular states for Americans to move to. Therefore, there will be a large portion of the population with out-of-state area codes.
Kruse said that many Floridians will call 1-800-GAMBLER and won’t be able to get the localized guidance they need.
“By promoting 1-800-GAMBLER in states that already have state-specific numbers and systems in place, it literally diverts people away from help that they would have received had they been able to have access to that state-specific number on the same level as national numbers,” she said.
One of the often-discussed solutions proposed by Whyte, Costello and Ostapiuk involved callers receiving an automated prompt asking what state they are in. But Kruse said the NCPG technology is glitchy.
Current text-and-chat has similar problems to the hotline
The NCPG also manages a national text-and-chat service. But Kruse said the chats that get routed to Florida are seldom from Florida residents.
Between July 2021 and May 2022, the Florida Council handled 683 text-and-chats, according to Kruse. Just 12 were from “legitimate Florida help-seekers.” The rest were either people in other states or people who think they can contact a gambling helpline for technical questions or complaints regarding iGaming apps.
“Beyond the routing issues, there are issues with the national collaboration queue where some people just kind of hang out in cyberspace and we don’t see them until 8 or 9 o’clock the next morning,” said Kruse. “You can see the timestamp when they initiated the text-and-chat. I don’t know where they went or who was supposed to answer them. By that point, it’s too late. The person’s gone.”
Before the NCPG expands its national footprint with a unified hotline, Kruse believes they need to fix existing problems.
“There’s a lot of problems in the infrastructure,” she said. “That is my biggest concern.”
NCPG says improvements are coming
Yet in the Zoom session on June 9, Whyte and Costello promised a systemic upgrade. The upgrade includes better training and more efficient technology.
“I don’t want to tear anybody else’s helpline down,” said Whyte. “I just want to continue to make the affirmative case that we partnered with CCGNJ to unify our members. We’re encouraging folks to think about all those obvious benefits and do the same thing. The more we use it, the easier it is for people to get the help they need.”