What You Need to Know About the Lottery and the $1.5 Billion Jackpot

A grand total of 1.5 billion dollars attracted hundreds of millions of players to the Powerball on Jan. 13th, but this mega-jackpot is no accident. A brilliant business decision by Powerball in the fall of 2015 drastically lowered the odds of winning the jackpot. The jackpot chances fell from a meager 1 in 175 million to a microscopic 1 in 292 million. To put that in perspective, an amateur golfer is twenty-three thousand times more likely to score a hole in one. When the odds of winning got smaller, people actually gambled more. Since the change in early November, not a single winning ticket was sold until the jackpot swelled into the largest lottery winnings ever. The billion dollar jackpot was too much to resist, and over 85% of every possible lottery ticket combination was bought for the final drawing.

Well, who won? Three winning tickets were sold in Chino Hills, CA, Munford, TN, and Melbourne Beach, FL. It is customary for winners to remain anonymous for weeks or even months after winning to arrange financial advisers. The winning couple from Tennessee broke all precedents by appearing on the Today Show almost immediately after winning, and before even redeeming their ticket.

A scary consequence of a public announcement such as the one by this Tennessee couple is that people will try to take advantage of your good fortune. Multi-million dollar winner Sandra Hayes describes her experience after winning in 2006: “It became necessary to be careful about who I make friends with because some people can be cruel and have alternative motives for befriending you. Some feel that just because you have money, you owe them money.” Fake friends and distant relatives all try to chip off a chunk of the fortune for themselves, and any winner should be careful when dealing with requests for money. Sandra also recalled friends that would finish eating a meal and then mention they forgot to bring their wallet. Beyond exploiting friends, lottery winners also receive countless letters, faxes, emails and other communication from completely random people. “They were desperate, but I had no idea who they were,” she said.

Inheriting such large sums of money can also be a personal safety threat. An Illinois man, Urooj Khan, was killed the day after the state cashed his check by a lethal cyanide injection. His killer was never found, and his fortune was split between his daughter and wife. Another winner, Abraham Shakespeare, was kidnapped and killed by Doris “Dee Dee” Moore after she swindled him of all his money. Doris kept the death secret for months, going as far as texting Shakespeare’s friends from his phone. His body was found under a five-foot slab of concrete, ten months after his death.

Yet with all of these consequences from a public announcement, only six states allow winners to remain anonymous, according to Huffington Post. The question of winner anonymity has been challenged before. Lotteries claim that seeing an actual name ensures players that they are playing a legitimate gamble, and not losing to a lottery insider who rigged the game. When players see that an actual person won, “it has a much greater impact than when they might read that the lottery paid a big prize to an anonymous player,” said director of public relations for the Michigan state lottery, Andi Brancato. Lawmakers in Michigan and New Jersey have attempted unsuccessfully to pass legislation allowing anonymity to protect winners.

While lottery winners are certainly at a risk from others, one of the greatest risks is keeping control of themselves. Jack Whittaker’s life is a sad story of a man who lost everything after he won. In 2002 he won a $314,900,000 jackpot, the biggest to date. He was already a millionaire several times over before winning, as the president of his own contracting business. He initially donated large sums to charities and churches around West Virginia, and was respected as a local hero. But the money was too much for him, he developed a drinking problem and became a frequent customer of the local strip clubs. First his granddaughter’s boyfriend was found dead in his home from drug overdose, but the tragedies did not stop there. His granddaughter died three months later also from an overdose. His daughter was found dead in her luxury home in 2009 of unknown causes. Whittaker admitted in a 2007 interview with ABC News, “I wish I’d torn that ticket up.”

So Did the Tennessee couple make a poor decision appearing on TV? Possibly. They definitely should have waited until they had claimed the prize, and could have given themselves more time to prepare for the chaos that follows the huge influx of funds. But in the end they are required to announce themselves in the state of Tennessee, so delaying it would only be a temporary solution. A lottery victory appears to be the dream, but it can also be a curse in disguise.

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