Riverboats' costly wake: bankruptcies

Gambling noted by many seeking relief from debts in the Kansas City area

January 10, 2000|By KANSAS CITY STAR

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Cathy, a 34-year-old saleswoman in Kansas City, had several platinum cards as proof of her good credit.

Then she started gambling at area riverboats.

She'd bet a few hundred dollars in cash. When she lost that, she'd get cash advances on her credit cards at the casinos' customer service counters.

"It made me sick, but the more sick it made me, the more I would go back," she said. "They weren't going to beat me -- I was going to beat them. But they won."

She gambled away an estimated $10,000 to $20,000 between 1996 and 1998. In late 1998, faced with credit card debts of more than $45,000, she declared personal bankruptcy.

She's not alone. Bankruptcies noting gambling debts as a contributing factor have jumped since the riverboats entered the Kansas City market in mid-1994.

The Kansas City Star has examined more than 22,000 bankruptcy filings from 1994 through 1998 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Kansas City, the busiest of four federal courthouses in the Western District of Missouri.

The study did not take as detailed a look at bankruptcy filings across the Missouri River in Kansas. But bankruptcy lawyers interviewed for this article reported similar increases in gambling-related bankruptcies throughout the metropolitan area.

"It certainly is not divided along state lines," said Eric Rajala, an Overland Park lawyer who handles bankruptcy cases.

While bankruptcy filings at the Kansas City courthouse increased each year, echoing the trend nationwide, bankruptcies noting gambling as a contributing factor increased at a much faster rate.

The first Kansas City area riverboat casino opened in mid-1994. In that year, only 13 of the 3,501 bankruptcy filings in Kansas City -- 0.37 percent -- listed gambling losses. Those listing gambling as a factor in their bankruptcies had unsecured debts of $241,232.

By 1998, 194 of the 5,618 persons who filed -- 3.5 percent -- said gambling was a contributing factor in their bankruptcies. They listed unsecured debts of more than $7.5 million, much of it to credit card companies.

It's not only debt-ridden gamblers who are the losers. Experts say consumers pay higher costs because of bankruptcies in the form of higher interest rates and fees on credit cards. Other costs can range from more expensive credit insurance to footing the bill when problem gamblers enter the court system.

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