Keep an eye out for old state lottery tickets while rummaging through drawers and closets for holiday decorations. Millions of dollars are going unclaimed, and you don't want to lose out.
More than $26 million worth of winning tickets were never redeemed in the fiscal year that ended in September. Another $2 million was lost in October. And since the lottery began 35 years ago, an eye-popping $512 million has gone unclaimed.
Today, the one-year clock is ticking on a number of sizable winning tickets, most bought in Metro Detroit.
There's a Jan. 3 deadline for the holder of a winning $100,000 Millionaire Raffle ticket (number 333774) to come forward. It was bought last January at Luke's Gift & Sweet Shoppe in Troy's Oakland Mall.
"I just don't expect the winner to show," said John Kenyon, who sold that winning ticket. "It's our theory that it was probably purchased by an older person who didn't realize the ticket was a winner and probably threw it in the garbage."
But, sometimes, winners do wait until the last minute to come forward to collect.
Last year, The News ran a front-page story about a $1.5 million winning ticket that was about to expire. The story was picked up by other media outlets, and the coverage jogged the memory of a middle-aged Detroit father of two. Nearly a year earlier, he had bought two Windfall tickets at the Meijer store in Roseville -- using the birthdates of his deceased parents as his numbers.
He placed the tickets into the pocket of a new leather coat his wife had bought for him. Frankly, he didn't care for the coat, and it sat in the closet for a year until the man got curious.
The man, who requested anonymity, showed up at Lottery headquarters in Lansing to collect his fortune -- 4 1/2 hours before the one-year deadline.
Not all the stories end that way.
The one Lottery officials still shake their heads at involved a $34 million winning ticket sold at a Meijer store in East Lansing in 1997. The winner never showed. In fact, there have been 13 winning tickets worth at least $1 million that were never cashed before the one-year deadline.
Money goes to schools
The upside is that all of the unclaimed prize money is placed into the state School Aid Fund, which goes toward K-12 education.
Tom Weber, acting Michigan Lottery commissioner, said while it's a good thing that schools benefit from unclaimed winnings, the state would rather see winners get their financial due.
"We love it when people win, and we want them to have a full winning experience," he said.
Weber guesses that a lot of the unclaimed prize money is in the big jackpot games.
"Unclaimed rates are high on games like Mega Millions," he said. "A player hears that the big winner is not from the town where he bought a ticket and so he doesn't check to see if his ticket won a smaller prize."
Weber also hears from people who said they had the winning ticket but lost it -- like the Macomb County man a few years ago who said he lost his winner in Lake St. Clair while water-skiing.
"You have to have the winning ticket," Weber said, to claim the prize.
Woman misplaced ticket
Gus Harrison, the state's first Lottery commissioner, made an exception to the rule in the late 1970s after he received what he described at the time as "one of the funniest letters I've ever seen."
A Royal Oak mother of four wrote that she had won $5,000 in a drawing. She was so excited that she and her husband got "some good wine and partied it up."
Before going to bed, she hid the winning ticket in a secure place. Problem was, in the morning she couldn't remember where that was.
In the days that followed she frantically ripped molding off the floorboards and paneling off the walls and removed all the mirrors to look at their backs. No luck.
She bought a metal detector in hopes the metal foil on the ticket would trigger a response. She went to a hypnotist in an attempt to jog her memory. She started taking tranquilizers.
She wrote she had been through "40 days of sheer hell."
The Lottery boss decided her story was legitimate. She got the money. She and her husband took a trip to Las Vegas.