Mitch Lipka, dealnews columnist There is something about March Madness that gets consumers' gambling mojo going. Perhaps it's that NCAA Tournament brackets are found in just about every workplace, web portal and newspaper. And if you want to bet on a particular game and aren't near a casino sports book, the next place you might turn would be online — as most people do for a convenient solution. But is it legal to place bets online? The short answer: It's not so clear, but it's probably not a great idea. Here's the situation: Companies can't operate sports betting operations online in the U.S., so they are based in places like Ireland, Mauritius or some Caribbean island. Many look quite professional, seem to work in a reasonable fashion and are quite accessible as websites tend to be. But here's the catch: while the gambling part is not technically prohibited, the transaction you would make online is. Congress has taken a few pokes at trying to legalize the transactions — mostly interested in the fees and tax revenue that they would collect. That's not chump change, considering the online gaming market is believed to be well in excess of $30 billion a year. And legalizing the operations for U.S. gamblers would also give consumers some degree of protection. And therein lies the biggest problem. If there's an dispute over a transaction (and who hasn't ever had one?), there's no place to turn for help. Even though the sites market their products to a U.S. audience, you'll find disclaimers in various place that apply mainly to U.S. residents. On one site, for instance, it appears that credit card transactions are the way U.S. players are expected to join, rather than several other virtual money systems afforded international gamblers. Other sites have disclaimers like this: "US CITIZENS PLEASE NOTE: The information contained at this site is for news and entertainment purposes only." So, there's certainly a way to bet online if you're so inclined, but you're probably best sticking with the office pool. At least there you know who's collecting your money and you don't have to look at a world map to figure out where they are. For more on our new series with Mitch Lipka, see 7 Smart Ways to Give to Japan. Mitch Lipka is an investigative journalist for consumer issues who formerly wrote for WalletPop.com, Consumer Reports, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, among other places. Follow him on Twitter — @mitchlipka or on Facebook. You can also sign up for an email alert for all dealnews features. Photo Credit: RMTip21 via Flickr.