People who believed they were big winners in a simple South Carolina Education Lottery game over the Christmas holiday were angry to discover that they won't actually win anything.
That's because a computer glitch awarded many would-be lucky lottery winners thousands of dollars through the Holiday Cash game.
From 5:51 to 7:53 p.m. on Christmas Day, the same play symbol was repeated in all nine available play areas on tickets which would result in a top prize of $500, according to the South Carolina Education Lottery. No more than five identical play symbols should appear for a single play.
"As soon as the issue was identified, the Add-A-Play game was suspended immediately to conduct a thorough investigation," a statement said. "Instant (scratch) tickets and all other lottery games were not affected by this error."
Lottery officials immediately suspended Holiday Cash until further notice until the glitch is reviewed.
Still, that didn't stop angry lottery players from all over South Carolina from heading to the main Columbia office Wednesday morning. A line of players formed outside the lottery office to demand answers.
Holiday Cash Add-A-Play game sales and validations will remain suspended until further notice. The South Carolina Education Lottery advised that all players who purchased a Holiday Cash Add-A-Play ticket on Christmas Day during the time period affected are advised to hold on to their ticket(s) until the review is completed.
Lottery officials said late Tuesday they are looking to have an announcement on the issue later this week.
The impact of the programming error
Imagine getting a lottery ticket for Christmas, and winning.
That's what happened to two Upstate women Monday.
"I was having a good day and I wanted to try it," Nicole Coggins of Liberty told a local TV station.
She said she had a gut feeling. "I don't play the lottery that much. Every once in a while, I'll buy a Powerball ticket, but something told me to buy a lottery ticket," she said.
Coggins knew she was on to something when she bought a Holiday Cash ticket, and paid an extra dollar to add a play.
Players have to get three Christmas trees in any vertical, horizontal or diagonal line in order to win a prize.
"I was happy," she said. "I was excited. I was calling everyone I knew, 'I won $500.'"
To test her luck, Coggins bought another ticket.
"And it was another winner and another winner. So I thought, 'Well, maybe there is something wrong with their machine. This can't be real.'"
She drove to two other gas stations with the same result, so she called her mother-in-law, Shawanna Ladd and suggested she try playing the game.
"I played $10 first, and I won on every ticket," Ladd said.
Together they racked up almost $18,000 at different Liberty stores including Marathon, Spinx and Ball Mart.
But their Christmas miracle turned out to be a sham, when Coggins went to cash in the tickets. The cashier put the tickets into the machine, but only disappointment came out.
"It told him 'transaction not allowed,' that the game was not valid," Coggins said.
No one at the stores would talk on camera, but a manager at one store said "it was crazy" on Christmas day, as the word got out about the winning tickets and dozens of people rushed in to buy them.
He said the frenzy lasted for about an hour, before the machines stopped issuing tickets.
The "winning" tickets inserted into the lottery machine to confirm the win said that the tickets were invalid, so no money was issued, he said.
At least one other person reported the same situation, and there were published reports of similar invalid sales in the Charleston area.
The news was heartbreaking for Coggins, who got emotional as she explained that she had already told her kids they were going to take a trip to Disney World.
"I had been promising them for years and I thought I would finally get to, and now I can't," she said.
After spending $100 on lottery tickets, Coggins got nothing in return.
She said Tuesday afternoon that she was still waiting for a response from the South Carolina Education Lottery.
"We didn't do anything wrong. The stores didn't do anything wrong. It's (the SCEL's) fault. I think they should either honor the tickets or give us our money back," Coggins said.
Until then, she's not going to let the so-called glitch ruin her Christmas.
"I'll always have my family and I'm thankful for my family and that's the more important thing in the world," she said.
The SCEL headquarters in Columbia is closed for the holidays and will reopen Wednesday.