Lottery tickets -- even the instant kind -- don't last forever.
Not knowing about that expiration date could ruin your lucky day.
If you've ever played a scratch-off lottery game, you have plenty of company in western Pennsylvania.
Instant lottery ticket sales last year were $12 million in Beaver County, $14 million in Butler County, $36 million in Westmoreland County, $15 million in Washington County and $97 million -- the highest in Pennsylvania -- in Allegheny County.
Ed Mahlman, Pennsylvania Lottery director: "They're almost half our sales and they are easy to play. There's no drawing. There's a market for that."
That market is huge -- almost $1 billion in sales statewide, just for scratch-off games.
But the players who are plunking down the bucks have no idea that, in some cases, they have no chance of winning the big prize because the big prize has already been won.
Team 4 went shopping a few weeks ago for scratch-off games and took a hidden camera along. At store after store, we found a $5 Doughman Dollars game for sale -- the same game the Pennsylvania Lottery promoted heavily in December.
Doughman Dollars promises 10 top prizes of $50,000. By late January, when we found it still for sale in store after store, all 10 of those prizes had already been claimed, but players didn't know that.
It's not just this game. It happens all the time.
Mahlman: "When the top prize is won, we immediately take steps to set an end date for that product."
But while the lottery is taking those steps, unsuspecting players are still buying.
At Chow Chow's grocery in Plum, we found Doughman Dollars and three other instant games that were expired. Months earlier, the lottery division had terminated Lucky Loot, Supercash and 3 Times Lucky. By law, these tickets weren't allowed to be sold any more. But here they were.
Parsons: "I was just in here and I purchased some lottery tickets. Three of these games are expired."
Anwar Durrani, lottery retailer: "Expired?"
Parsons: "These games are terminated. It's illegal to sell these games after the termination date. Did you know that?"
Durrani: "I really don't know about that."
He said he also didn't know that Doughman Dollars was out of top prizes, even though it was still a valid game.
Durrani: "There must be lower prizes if the major prizes are gone."
Parsons: "Yes. The big prizes are all gone, though."
Durrani: "Even if the big prizes are gone, they have to finish those tickets, which we have. They do have some prizes on that."
Parsons: "But do you think people would buy Doughman Dollars if they knew that all the big prizes were gone?"
Durrani: "I don't think so, but still, we are selling. Believe me."
He says he keeps selling instant tickets until they're all gone because the lottery doesn't tell him when the top prizes are claimed or when the games are terminated.
Other retailers we spoke with, including a beer distributor in Elizabeth, agreed.
Parsons: "Does the lottery ever notify you when a game has been terminated? Do they let you know that?"
Karen Rischitelli, lottery retailer: "They let us know when they're sending the lottery tickets out. As far as being terminated, no."
The lottery director disputes that, and he claims that his agency notifies retailers when the last top prize has been claimed. But why doesn't the lottery immediately suspend ticket sales when that happens?
Mahlman: "There can be an audience for the product among some of their customers."
Parsons: "What kind of an audience would there be?"
Mahlman: "Maybe for lower-tier prizes."
Parsons: "Do you think that customers would want to buy a ticket?"
Mahlman: "No, from our point of view, we want to get the word out quickly that the top prizes are gone."
Here's how we figured out that these four tickets we purchased were sure-fire losers:
We got our information by going to the Pennsylvania Lottery Web site, www.palottery.com
, where there's a listing of all instant games.
We checked out all four games and found that, while most games have links to give you more information about that game, the four that we purchased had no links. There's no more information.
After checking with the lottery, we confirmed that if their Web site has no more links on a game, it means there are no more top prizes remaining. But you have to figure that out on your own.
Kathy Bush, of Uniontown, figured out how to use the lottery's Web site. She especially likes the feature that tells her how many prizes remain for each instant game. She has won the top prize four different times.
Bush: "What I do is I go on there and see what is left. If there's a lot left, then you know there is a good possibility of winning something. If there's not a lot left, you just move to another game."
Bush is not the typical lottery player. Most players won't check the Internet before making a purchase. They want to know they have a fair shot at winning the big prize.
Ben Gross, lottery player: "I think that's a bait and switch. They're offering you a prize that's not available."
Desiree Jefferson, lottery player: "I'm going to stop playing. I shouldn't be playing anyway. You're not supposed to gamble. But I guess I'm going to stop for sure now that I know I'm not going to win the jackpot."
Something extraordinary has happened since we interviewed the director of the Pennsylvania Lottery about 10 days ago for this story. The lottery has contacted all 7,700 retailers in Pennsylvania to tell them to pull all expired games off their shelves. Also, the lottery has improved its Web site so you can now find out when all the top prizes for a game are gone.
The lottery admits it wasn't doing a good enough job of communicating with its retailers. They think they have that problem fixed now.