Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Lottery winners lose out

The state sells instant game tickets even after the top prize is long gone.
By Tony Manolatos / The Detroit News

Todd McInturf / The Detroit NewsBill Christman takes his chances with an instant ticket. Consumer advocates say the state should do more for players.
Scratch and win?
As of Monday, five of the 38 instant games that are shipped to Michigan retailers no longer offer grand prizes:
• Love That Loot, $2 game with both $14,000 top prizes claimed
• Snow Bank, $2 game with both $15,000 top prizes claimed
• Magic 21, $2 game with both $21,000 top prizes claimed
• Silver Streak, $2 game with both $25,000 top prizes claimed
• Roll Out The Cash, $5 game with both $250,000 top prizes claimed
• To check all games, including ones like The Golden Pack, which is still on store shelves but is no longer being replenished, go to: www.michigan.gov/lottery/1,1607,7-110-821_918---,00.html
Source: Bureau of State Lottery
Lottery's fine print
Would you buy instant lottery tickets if you knew that the grand prizes were already claimed?
Yes, I could still win a lesser amount
No, I want a shot at the top prize
Get results and comments



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It's called The Golden Pack, a Michigan Lottery game that costs you $10 to play, with the promise that you can walk away a millionaire. But in truth, you can't come anywhere near the top prize -- it was won long ago.
Only two Golden Pack tickets were truly golden, but the rest are still for sale.
What's left is a maximum prize of $10,000, but lottery officials say they're not deceiving anyone. Read the small print, they say, or check the lottery's Web site, which lists weekly grand prize updates.
The news is a surprise to some lotto players.
"Whaddya mean I can't win the top prize?" said Bill Christman, 64, a Warren truck driver who bought a scratch-off ticket last week.
As of Monday, five of the 38 instant games still shipped to stores no longer offer grand prizes. And top prizes are gone in as many as 100 other games that may still be sold, lottery officials said. That means untold numbers of players over the next several months will buy tickets that cost as much as $10 without any chance of winning a top prize.
"If the top prize is gone, the ticket shouldn't be for sale," Christman said. "It isn't fair."
He is among the players who feel taken when they find they're playing for substantially less money than what's splashed across the front of tickets.
A disclaimer on the back of each ticket tells players "prizes are subject to prior sales," but consumer advocates said the vague language is hardly a warning.
The lottery introduces about 72 instant games a year, each shipped to stores for two to five months, but some are available for a year or longer, lottery officials said. Games expire 18 months after they're introduced.
Both old and new games are sold in stores, and lottery officials aren't sure how many tickets from old games remain on store shelves.
The state stopped filling orders from stores for The Golden Pack, introduced last September, on Friday. But it's still sold widely. Michigan Lottery commissioner Gary Peters said grand prizes account for only about 15 percent of the potential winnings for each game.
"Certainly, folks play for the grand prize, but they also play for the other prizes," Peters said. "There's still some very nice prizes to win (when the grand prize is gone). ... Folks who are just playing to win the top prize need to check the Internet."
There are usually two top prizes available for each game, and when they're gone, they're gone, Peters said. He doesn't pull the games when someone hits the jackpot because millions in smaller prizes remain.
One $5 game, for example, Roll Out the Cash, has $3.6 million remaining in unclaimed prizes, Peters said. Both of the game's grand prizes, $250,000 apiece, are gone.
"If I pulled it, folks are going to say, 'You pulled a game with $3.6 million left to win,'" Peters said. "I'd be criticized for that."
Perhaps, but the Michigan Lottery Web site shows that Roll Out the Cash players don't have much of a chance to cash in. There's one $10,000 winning ticket remaining and three $1,000 winners
In all of the games, some players play to win the grand prize. Otherwise, why play, they say. They said the state should offer more top prizes and force retailers to post the availability of those prizes next to the tickets.
"They should get rid of the games if there's no top prize left -- that's what I'm after," said Shannon Elder, 57, a salesman from Burt who stopped at a Sterling Heights party store to pick up a scratch-off ticket last week.
The state can and should do more for players, consumer advocates said.
"Unfortunately, we know people don't read fine print and not everyone has Internet access," said Megan Owens, of Public Interest Research Group In Michigan, an Ann Arbor-based consumer watchdog group. "While, technically, they're not doing anything illegal, they are being misleading."
A Duke University professor who published a book about state lotteries, "Selling Hope," said the Michigan Lottery should be more upfront, especially on the back of instant tickets.
"Probably, the reasonable thing to say is, 'By the time you buy this ticket, the million dollars may be gone, but there are still $5 prizes available,'" said Charles Clotfelter, professor of public policy, economics and law at Duke.
Clotfelter said lottery officials probably don't want to make too many changes to instant tickets, a cash cow for the state. During each of the last five years, instant games were the Lottery's top moneymaker.
In 2004, a record year for the lottery, the department had sales of $1.9 billion, including $690 million from scratch-offs.
Store owners, who keep 6 percent of their lottery sales, don't see a problem.
"The more games I have, the better it is for the store because people can play whatever game they like," said Lorenza Caradonna, who co-owns Car-Donna Party Store on Mound in Sterling Heights with her husband, Jack.
The Caradonnas drape their instant tickets like streamers from liquor shelves behind a counter. Customers can see all 37 different games for sale, including some that say, "Win up to $250,000" and "Win up to $1,000,000."
The Caradonnas sell thousands of dollars of scratch-offs every week, reeling in a ton of business from the Visteon Corp. parts plant across the street. Some of the workers who play hope the next ticket is the one, but almost all of them settle for much smaller prizes or nothing.
"It gives me something to do other than read the paper. I get so bored being a cleaner," said Betty McCarter, 54, of Detroit, who on Wednesday bought three $2 tickets and a bottle of Faygo.
McCarter doesn't mind scratching tickets with no shot at winning a grand prize.
"I can still win $5 or $10," she said.
Most players aren't as ambivalent when they find out they bought a ticket that won't make them rich, even though it says it could.
"I had a guy come in here the other day who started yelling at me," Jack Caradonna said. "He said, 'How can you sell me this ticket? I can't win with this ticket.'"

You can reach Tony Manolatos at (313) 222-2069 or tmanolatos@detnews.com.
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