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Steve Friess: 1-800-GAMBLER Has A TikTok Problem

Written By Steve Friess on October 24, 2023 - Last Updated on February 16, 2024
Steve Friess State Of Play Gambling Hotline's TikTok Problem

State of Play with Steve Friess

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.


Over the weekend, operators who field calls for the National Problem Gambler Hotline, 1-800-GAMBLER, began being inundated by prank calls. They all went something like this:

“Male caller asked twice if this was Burger King. Advised that this wasn’t, and this is a crisis line which should not be pranked call. He said it wasn’t a prank call and one of our employees told him before that this is the phone number for Burger King. I thanked him for calling and he said, “You all f****** suck at your jobs.” I disconnected the line. The next day, another male called and asked ‘Is this Burger King?’ and hung up.”

Those are the notes from one volunteer who staffs the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, which operates its own helpline but also receives automatic rollover calls from 1-800-GAMBLER when someone calls it with a Florida area code.

FCCG Executive Director Jennifer Kruse says more than half of the calls her hotline received over the past weekend were along these lines. In all, her staff handled 46 of these inappropriate calls from Friday through Sunday.

It didn’t take much sleuthing to discover what was going on. In another post-call note, a different operator wrote:

“When asked as to how the caller heard of us today, he laughed excessively. He explained that he saw a meme online about a guy who called ‘us,’ and the lady was so mean to him. The lady asked him if he has prayed for his gambling, then hung up on him. I clarified what phone number he had dialed, which he confirmed was the 1-800-GAMBLER Helpline number. I explained how this number will redirect a person based on their area code so it was likely not us here at the FCCG. I also tried clarifying where he saw the meme, and he said online. The caller noted that he thought it was funny and figured he would call just to see what we thought about his gambling (and for a good laugh).”

As my 2-year-old often says: Uh oh.

The root of the problem

The drama was caused by a two-minute TikTok posted last week by Twitch presenter LosPollosTV, who has 685,000 followers there, and typically streams himself gambling, playing video games or doing wacky antics.

The two-minute version is a supercut of a much longer feed he streamed at least two years ago in which he calls 1-800-GAMBLER after apparently losing a bunch of money at an online casino. It starts like this:

Operator: Problem gambler hotline.
Him: Hi, is this, is this 1-800-GAMBLER?
Operator: Problem gambler hotline, how may I help you?
Him: Uh, yeah, I just, I just wanted to, uh, talk to somebody.
Silence. Line disconnects.

He calls back and says he thinks he has a gambling problem. The operator, who sounds like the same woman every time, tells him she wouldn’t be able to tell him if he has a gambling problem. “That’s something you would have to know before calling.” When he tells her he “just lost $4,000,” she asks how she would know that to be true and hangs up again.

It gets worse from there. Several times, the person who answered claims he’s called a Burger King. One time she tells him to pray.

The original feed isn’t available on Twitch, and a heavily edited 12-minute version was posted in January 2022 on YouTube but got fewer than 3,000 views. For whatever reason, LosPollosTV knew he had untapped comedy gold and put a short version on TikTok.

It has more than 282,000 views now. And we all know how these things go when they start to pop.

Is the video even real?

In the TikTok comments, viewers debate whether it’s real. Several claim they watched the feed live and can testify to its veracity. They probably also claim they saw Bobby Thomson hit his homer and attended Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

It’s not real. Viewers never see the number the dude is dialing. He gets the same operator more than a dozen times. And there’s the Burger King of it all, of course.

It’s not real, but it doesn’t matter because it starts out feeling real. His first calls aren’t that far off from some of the tests I’ve done with these services, with disaffected operators seeming annoyed by having to answer, suddenly asking random biographical information like age and what kind of games I play after I say something soul-bearing that deserves a more personal touch.

The video is also funny. Watching this guy pretend to lose his mind is quite entertaining. He’s a very talented comic.

But now there’s this video out there beating up on a free hotline, and his viewers want in on the gag.

Uh oh.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better

Nobody from the National Problem Gambling Council, which oversees 1-800-GAMBLER, got back to me Monday, but Kruse is very alarmed. Not only have her folks fielded dozens of these Burger King calls from rollovers of the national line, but folks are also seeking Florida’s direct hotline, 1-888-ADMIT-IT.

It seems people are watching LosPollosTV’s TikTok and then calling whatever hotline they see. Several states have their own. The numbers appear on gambling apps, on lottery tickets, in national TV ads and via Google searches among other places.

Kruse tells me:

“It’s very problematic because all these inappropriate calls bogged down the helpline. We’re already at capacity in terms of the volume of calls and things are just increasing day after day. So when you throw all these prank calls and these stupid things in the mix, it doesn’t help.”

Of course not. And hopefully this will blow over. PlayUSA is not linking to it because, while it’s entertaining, we don’t want to accelerate the virality of something that could waste precious resources needed by people who are having a serious crisis.

That said, this is only going to get worse before it gets better, right? Because that’s how the Internet works?

Uh oh.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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