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It is hard for some to believe, but even as some Americans dream of hitting it big in the Lotto, Powerball, and Megamillions jackpots, for some it might have happened and whizzed by unnoticed.
"Happens all the time," says Illinois Lottery chief Michael Jones. "People misinterpret whether they won or lost. People misplace tickets all the time."
Jones said the lottery estimates about one percent of all lottery prizes go unclaimed. And, considering the Illinois games raked in about $3 billion last year, he estimates about $2 million a month find no takers.
"They look to see whether they won the big prize, and then they discard the ticket," he said.
Indeed, right now there are some whoppers looking for a home: $750,000 in Megamillions winnings, along with a $6.5 million lotto winner from last August. There are $845,833 in combined winning tickets in the Lucky Day Lotto game. And there is even a million dollar winner from the millionaire raffle last March.
In some cases, unclaimed winnings are tied up in court. Right now, there is an ongoing dispute among employees at a Chicago Heights bakery over a $118 million windfall. Some of those employees contend they were squeezed out of an office pool which they all routinely play.
But in many cases, people simply don’t know that they’ve won.
Take Ron Yurcus for example. The hospice chaplain routinely played various lottery games but failed to check the Powerball ticket he bought last August. For three months.
Then, in November, Yurcus was cleaning his desk and found the ticket. He decided he should check the numbers before throwing it away. And, left to right, as each one matched, his eyes got bigger.
"When I saw that number one, with all those zeroes after it, I just about fell over," Yurcus said. "Thinking, this isn’t real. This isn’t me. This can’t be happening."
He said he waited until his wife came home, sat her down, opened a bottle of wine, and broke the news that they had just won a million dollars. And that they had done so, three months earlier.
"Of course, we didn’t sleep that night," she said. "And it was like, 'Oh my gosh, we’ve had this treasure in our house for two months!'"
Most unclaimed tickets are, in actuality, small prizes of a few dollars or more. But those add up to millions every year. After 365 days, lottery prizes expire and are reclaimed into an unclaimed prize fund, the money used for various state purposes and additional jackpots.
Jones, the lottery director, says the state’s hope is that more people will avail themselves of his agency’s new online games. Those, he says, are foolproof.
If you win, they contact you.
"It’s the first time there will be no unclaimed prizes," he said. "We will inform you when you’ve won, and we will send you the money."