Dear Readers,

It's one of those dirty little money secrets no one likes to talk about: problem gambling. I don't mean the occasional trip to Las Vegas or picking up a few lottery tickets when you buy gas for your car. I'm talking about the compulsive gambler. The person who can't stop. Who has to bet. And who does so for the same reason a drug addict has to get a fix: it gets them high. 

Gamblers don't do it for the money. They do it for the thrill. "On an MRI scan, the brain of a pathological gambler looks the same as the brain of a cocaine addict," says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. The difference is gambling doesn't make you pass out. There is no built-in physical limitation that eventually forces you to stop the hurtful behavior. You can gamble as long as you've got money — or a credit card, in many cases.

When a chronic gambler is part of the equation, the typical financial planning process can be turned on its head. You have to take the opposite approach you might otherwise take. For instance, while couples typically hold property as "Joint Tenants with Right of Survival" or "Tenancy in Common" these are not necessarily the best way to title assets. Instead, consider putting them solely in the name of the non-gambling spouse.

However, be aware that this is not a fail-safe way to keep assets out of the hands of your spouse's creditors. Depending on the state where you live, no matter how the property is titled, you may still be liable for the debts racked up by your spouse.

A debt consolidation loan is another no-no because it just masks the problem which got you into the trouble to begin with. Hide the gambling debts among some credit card bills and maybe a car loan and you make it easier for the gambler to forget how much of that total debt she or he is responsible for.

Day traders (remember them?) and on-line stock traders are often compulsive gamblers. Unable to accept a loss, they keep making bigger and riskier bets hoping to win it back and "just break even." Trouble is, a big gain doesn't satisfy. It just whets the appetite to try for another one.

It's estimated one percent of the U.S. population are pathological gamblers. That's 2.5 million people. And many of these individuals are teenagers. "Not my Johnny or Susie," you say? Think again. The National Council on Problem Gambling says parents typically underestimate the extent to which a child gambles. A telephone survey turned up some scary statistics: 77% of kids age 12 to 17 admitted gambling in the past year. 50% said they bet in card games with friends. 30% bet on sports. For most, this is just a passing fad. Just keep in mind that chronic gamblers generally start as teenagers.

It's not unusual for a high school student, especially one who is male, to be thousands of dollars in debt by the end of football season. Often his parents, relieved that it's "just" gambling and not alcohol or drugs, bail him out. Which is the worst thing you can do for a problem gambler. Because if there are no consequences, that makes it easy for a kid to gamble again. And again.

In our society, it might be hard to discern whether someone is a "normal" gambler or is truly sick. Certainly we receive many mixed messages on the subject. What could be wrong with buying lottery tickets when the proceeds are used to fund educational programs? We glamorize places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City where top-name entertainers play and the drinks are on the house as long as you're putting money on the table. Sporting events not only make front-page news, they have their own television networks!

Think of the attention given to golf tournaments, football, basketball, college athletic events, horse races, and boxing matches. You name a sport and you can bet (literally) that someone is willing to give you odds on it. It's now even possible to gamble on a myriad of events in the privacy of your home without even picking up the telephone: simply log on to the Internet.

So how do you know when you — or someone close to you — is crossing the line? Let's face it, it's fun to drop some quarters in the slot machine and see what comes up. Or to win a few bucks from your friends when your alma mater takes the game in overtime.

The key to identifying problem gambling is the same as it is with detecting alcohol abuse. It comes down to whether the person can walk away from the behavior. Are you controlling the gambling or is the gambling controlling you?

Ask yourself the following questions from the National Council on Problem Gambling:

1. Have you often gambled longer than you had planned?

2. Have you often gambled until your last dollar was gone?

3. Have thoughts of gambling have caused you to lose sleep?

4. Have you used your income or savings to gamble while letting bills go unpaid?

5. Have you made repeated, unsuccessful attempts to stop gambling?

6. Have you broken the law or considered breaking the law to finance your gambling? (In most states, it's illegal for a minor to bet.)

7. Have you have borrowed money to finance your gambling? (Maybe you're not a gamer, but this can include margin loans on stocks.)

8. Have you felt depressed or suicidal because of your gambling losses?

9. Have you been remorseful after gambling?

10. Have you gambled to get money to meet your financial obligations?

Answer "Yes" to any of the above and you should consider seeking help from one of the sources at the end of this article.

If you're a parent and have a son or daughter starting high school or going off to college at a time which just happens to coincide with the beginning of football season, here are some warning signs that your child could be involved in gambling:

-- Your teenager has unexplained debt.

-- He/she sells personal belongings. (Where did that leather coat go?)

-- He/she becomes preoccupied with sports.

-- His/her circle of friends changes to others who are preoccupied with gambling.

Last year in this country, $60 billion dollars was spend just on legal gambling. It's estimated 45% of that went to state lotteries. Another 45% was bet at casinos. The remaining 10% was spent on charitable (Bingo, anyone?) gambling, parimutuel betting and the like.

But illegal gambling — especially on sporting events — dwarfs this. By some estimates, it amounts to ten times as much, or $600 billion dollars. (Don't think for a moment that this is going unnoticed by the F.B.I.)

Compulsive gambling is insidious, dangerous and threatens not just the financial security of the gambler, but those who love and depend upon them. Though we stereotypically think of men as having this problem, women are just as prone to it.

The Financial Planning Association suggests that spouses and friends of compulsive gamblers take several steps to protect themselves. Start by removing your name from any credit cards. Establish separate savings and checking accounts. Transfer assets out of any jointly-owned brokerage account into one in your name alone. Refuse to co-sign loans. Have someone other than the gambler be in charge of paying the household bills. Talk with a financial advisor and attorney about other steps you can take to shield yourself from the consequences of a loved one's gambling habit.

Most of all, get help — both for the gambler and for yourself. Educate yourself. Understand that since 1980, compulsive gambling has been classified as a "disease" by the American Psychiatric Association. It tends to run in families. If one or both parents gambled, their children are more likely to do so. Half of all pathological gamblers have had or currently have substance abuse problems. Yelling, crying and threatening the gambler don't work.

The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) in conjunction with the National Endowment on Financial Education have produced a very thorough guide which covers how to handle financial issues when a compulsive gambler is involved. You can get a free copy by calling NCPG: 800-330-8739.

NCPG, a non-profit organization, also sponsors a 24-hour helpline which can answer questions and refer you to help in your area, confidentially, of course. Last year, 115,000 people called this number for advice. It's 1-800-522-4700.

Additional information and links to other pertinent sites can be found on its website: http://www.ncpgambling.org.

Attention moms and dads: log on for some eye-opening information about teenage gambling. If you are a compulsive gambler, know that there is a way to stop and that you are not alone. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. Counseling and support groups are available at little or no cost. Your financial future as well as your family's depends on your making the biggest gamble of your life: bet on beating this habit! With help, the odds are definitely on your side.

Please share your stories.

Keep the faith,

Gail

If you have a question for Gail Buckner and the Your $ Matters column, send them to moneymatters@foxnews.com along with your name and phone number.

The views expressed in this article are those of Ms. Buckner or the individual commentator, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Putnam Investments Inc. or any of its affiliates. You should consult your own financial adviser for advice regarding your particular financial circumstances. This article is for information only and is not an offer of the sale of any mutual fund or other investment.