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Lottery Losers

Janak Patel selling lottery tickets at a Stop-n-Go on South Tryon St. hspace=2

The North Carolina Supreme Court will hear a case today arguing that the way state's three-year-old lottery was created violated the constitution. Whatever the outcome, thousands of people have taken to the lottery, raking in more than a billion dollars in prizes. Nearly a billion more has gone into the state's education fund. And a surprising amount of prize money has gone unclaimed by winners. "It's time for Powerball! America's biggest jackpot game!" So begins the weekly televised announcement of Powerball winners for the North Carolina lottery. The reason most people play is obvious. "Hoping to win, so I can retire early," says Wanda Bowser. Ronnie Maxwell adds, "I'm just trying to get that American dream so I can relax like everyone else." Bowser and Maxwell buy lottery tickets pretty much every day from the Stop and Go on South Tryon. Today, Bowser is cashing in on some minor luck: two tickets worth $40 each. Her biggest lottery win so far was a $500 ticket. Most of the time her winnings are much smaller, like today. But no matter how small, she says she always cashes in. "I'm religious about checking my tickets every night or first thing the next morning!" she exclaims. Not everyone who plays the lottery is as diligent as Bowser. Since the North Carolina Education Lottery started in 2005, 14-million dollars in Powerball prizes have gone unclaimed, along with millions more in other lottery games. University of Memphis psychologist and gambling researcher Jim Whalen says it's not as crazy as it seems. "Particularly if you bought a dollar ticket and won five or ten dollars," says Whalen. "The hassle to collect that money may be more than the value winning." So that's a reasonable explanation for the small dollar wins. But how to explain big wins that go unclaimed? In the last three years, seven North Carolina lottery tickets worth between $185,000 and $800,000 dollars have expired without being claimed. Just last Thursday the six-month clock ran out on a $200,000 ticket purchased in Winston Salem. Another $200,000 ticket from a small town south of Raleigh will expire this Thursday. Who would let that kind of money slip through their finger tips? Whalen says it could be anybody. "Holding onto something for three or four days can become cumbersome," says Whalen. "Particularly because the Powerball ticket looks most of the time like another receipt from a store. It's easy to misplace." Judy Black says it could have been her. In January, she won $200,000 on a Powerball ticket in Winston Salem. Actually, it was her husband Dwight who won. And he nearly didn't know it. We have our computer in the living room, right?" explains Judy Black. "And he puts all his lottery tickets up there. He don't think he gonna win, so he don't check the ticket, he just put it up there. And I'm always cleaning the living room and throwing them out." Lucky for the Blacks, the cashier at the convenience store mentioned something before Judy could throw out the winning ticket. "When he went into the store and she told him that somebody hit but hadn't claimed, he said 'Oh well, I guess I better check mine,'" recounts Black. "And I'm so sorry for those people who don't claim their prizes! But they probably are just like Dwight. They buy the ticket and throw it around somewhere and don't check it. So but from now on I'm gonna check Dwight's tickets." The North Carolina Education Lottery puts out press releases periodically to try and trigger the memory of people like Black, says Lottery director Tom Shaheen. Partly that's because when they do, the lottery can publicize their details. Someone who hears about everyday people like the Blacks hitting the lottery and taking a cruise to the Bahamas is likely to think, "That sounds like me. Maybe next time it'll be me." At this very moment, time is running out on four big lottery tickets in North Carolina worth a combined one million dollars. If no one claims them, half of the money will go back into the prize pool, the other half go to the state's education fund. So it's not a complete loss . . . unless it happens to be yours.