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Illustration Marija Marc

Debt and destruction: the dark side of crypto trading

‘I was a gambling addict destroying my life, being gaslit into thinking I was investing for my future’

While his classmates were deciding what GSCEs they wanted to study, Malik* was earning money as a small-time crypto trader: that is, someone who hopes to make a profit by buying digital coins when prices are low and selling when they climb higher.

Stellar, a crypto trading network, offered users ‘free’ Stellar coins for each signup, so Malik would sign up his friends and then create new emails to get more for himself. “Crypto was still quite new at the time, so most people didn't know [trading] websites like these existed,” he says. At one point, Malik signed up 30 referrals in one month, and promptly “reinvested” the Stellar coins he made from them. 

Malik didn't need the money – he lived with his parents in the South East of England – he just enjoyed the thrill of earning more than his £5 weekly pocket money. “I was pretty chuffed that I had money while other people my age were working part-time in McDonald’s or Tesco,” he says.

While Malik has made thousands through crypto gambling, he also suffers devastating losses. On one occasion he lost £25,000 in 11 hours and had to survive on one meal a day while at university. Now a 22-year-old graduate, Malik earns £60,000 a year from his job as a technical support specialist. But due to his crypto addiction, he can’t even afford the £32 needed to fix his teeth. 

It’s easy to lose money through crypto gambling, even if you are sensible. It’s highly addictive, no investment is guaranteed to make you a profit, and the cryptocurrency market is the most volatile of them all. Even Bitcoin, the most established coin, dips and surges. Cryptocurrencies are also decentralised, unlike the pound, meaning they aren't controlled by banks. So if you lose money, it's gone for good.

Castle Craig, a Scottish rehabilitation clinic, treated their first patient for compulsive crypto gambling in 2016. Since then, a few hundred patients have passed through the doors. But how do people start off simply wanting to buy some digital coins, and end up in rehab?

When people start fantasising about what they could buy with their hypothetical winnings, many teeter into addiction and start making riskier gambles or obsessively checking their phones and computers for price updates. “We have to be careful with this stage because we find that a lot of people start to use amphetamines to stay up longer or alcohol to numb themselves,” explains Anthony Marini, a therapist at Castle Craig. These cryptocurrency trading addicts display the same addictive behaviours as problem gamblers. 

Crypto gambling also lights up the same part of our brain that a bump of cocaine does, Marini adds. “It hits the front part of our brain, the pleasure-seeking part. And that’s where we produce the adrenaline, the endorphins, the dopamine. Because crypto is so volatile, we're producing quite a lot of that,” he says.

Steve*, a current patient at Castle Craig, would stay up for days on end using stimulants to analyse the markets for the right time to “hit it”. He couldn't sleep, and wasn’t eating properly. “I started chasing the price of this currency as it went around the world. What I fear is that a new generation of people are going to experience this delusion that they can beat these markets. But every trade is a gamble.” Steve says the amount he has lost is “unfathomable”, but does remember once losing £10,000 in 45 minutes.

“I ‘invested’ – bet – what little unemployment money I had into crypto, like an idiot, destroying my life almost” – David

During lockdown, things got tough for 28-year-old David*. “I ‘invested’ – bet – what little unemployment money I had into crypto, like an idiot, destroying my life almost,” he says. “I was a gambling addict destroying my life, being gaslit into thinking I was investing for my future.”

David is now in tens of thousands of pounds of debt. He says that crypto platforms “find a vulnerability to gambling addiction” and “push you unknowingly from ‘investing’ to straight-up crypto casinos in the most insane ways.” 

Crypto casinos are just like online casinos, except all deposits or withdrawals are made in cryptocurrency. They also don’t require ID to sign up, so some users are underage and already losing thousands. Usually, compulsive gamblers can turn to places like Gamstop which bans you from making an account with any UK-governed gambling company, but this isn’t an option for crypto casinos where you are anonymous. 

The consequences are devastating. “I gambled my entire paycheck”, writes one Reddit user on r/problemgambling. “This isn’t the first time I've done this. I hope it is the last. Now I've got no money for the next two weeks… Already have so many blocks in place but they don't work with crypto casinos. Going to have to resort to making my pay be deposited to a family member’s bank account and them direct debiting the money to me.”

The majority of crypto traders are millennials and Gen Z, like Malik and David. According to 2021 user data from crypto marketplace Paxful, around 32 per cent of traders are 18-24 years old, while 33 per cent are 25-34. A 2020 survey into Young People and Gambling also found that 37 per cent of 11-16-year-olds in England and Scotland had gambled in the last year, while 1.9 per cent of them are classified as ‘problem’ gamblers. “With the rising cost of living, saving for something like a house or a decent pension seems impossible,” says Ammar Kutait, CEO and Founder of smart finance app W1TTY. Research affirms this: over half of Brits aged 22-29 have no savings at all

“The stress, the tears, the sadness, the emptiness, the hatred, the regrets… none of that can be compared to a ‘game’” – Malik

The “accessibility and buzz around crypto” also makes it an appealing gamble, while seeing your peers making a decent return on their investments makes you more likely to try it, Kutait adds.

But this is a false promise. Continually losing money but being unable to stop can lead to “complete isolation, suicidal thoughts, problems with the law, work, family, friends, emotional breakdown, hopelessness... self-harm is quite common, and so is secondary addiction,” Marini explains. Suicide is also three times as likely through gambling as any other addiction.

“It sometimes feels like a job,” Malik says, reflecting on his own experience with addiction. “You cannot go out, you cannot have dinner or watch a film, you can’t even sleep because you have to ‘monitor’ the bet. The stress, the tears, the sadness, the emptiness, the hatred, the regrets… none of that can be compared to a ‘game’.” He adds that he has contemplated suicide as a result of his addiction before.

Marini runs the six-week course for people addicted to crypto trading, who are treated using one-to-one and group therapy and educational lectures within the wider gambling group. It works. “Six years ago, someone developed sex, cocaine, and alcohol addictions through gambling with crypto. Now, he has got his life together; he is back with his wife and his children are back in his life and is running a very successful business,” he says. “Meanwhile, someone that had embezzled 1.5 million of bitcoin is working now with gamblers to help them overcome their addiction.”

Evidently, crypto gambling can ruin lives. But there’s always hope of recovery, and Castle Craig is helping people get there.

*Names have been changed