Have you filled out your bracket yet?

With the NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament getting underway this week, many Garden State residents are going in on office pools or placing individual bets on teams to win the championship.

For most, this provides a little harmless fun. For others, it’s an invitation to financial disaster.

According to Neva Pryor, the executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, the average number of calls to the 1-800-GAMBLER hotline in a month is 35, but over the past few weeks that number shot up to 158 calls.

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She said with March Madness starting on Thursday, it’s especially important to be aware of some simple problem gambling warning signs.

“If you notice you’re spending more money than you normally would, if you’re not paying the rent or paying the mortgage, if your family is suffering, then there may be a problem," she said. "If you’re not able to make ends meet, if you’re lying, cheating, stealing, there’s a problem, most of society doesn’t do that.”

Pryor said online gambling in New Jersey, where you can make multiple bets within a single game, makes a bad situation even worse for some.

“We’re neither for nor against gambling. We say people should enjoy themselves if this is what they choose to do but just do it with the thought in mind that after this is over with, you still need to pay your bills," she said. "Only gamble what you can afford to lose.”

She said if you think you need help you can call the 1-800-GAMBLER hotline to discuss your situation confidentially, and you are also able to attend a virtual Gamblers Anonymous meeting.

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