Mega Millions Is a Scam That’s Totally Worth It
The lottery takes advantage of the poor and unsophisticated. But even the losers are winners.
By JEFF GREENFIELD
October 22, 2018
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Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.
Voltaire called it “a tax on stupidity.”
Statisticians tell you that you have a better chance of being hit by falling debris from an airplane.
Economists call it a tax on the poor, because the least well-off among us spend a far bigger share of their incomes on it.
And it doesn’t ever matter.
As soon as the numbers grow big enough, tens of millions of Americans will head to their convenience stores for a virtually nonexistent chance to strike it very, very rich. More than 280 million Mega Millions tickets were sold for last Friday’s drawings, when there was—for the 26th consecutive week—no winner. By Tuesday night, with a $1.6 billion first prize at stake, even more tickets surely will be sold. Throw in Wednesday’s Powerball jackpot of $620 million, and—unlike the lottery itself—it’s a good bet that there will be a lottery ticket purchased for every man, woman and child in the nation this week.
It’s a national celebration of illusion, in which citizens and media alike are happily complicit. We never see long lines and hysterical news reports when the jackpots are, say $40 million, although for most of us—say, 99 percent—a $40 million prize would change our lives significantly. But once the numbers move up into the half-billion dollar range, the allure of the prize becomes irresistible. (“Now it’s worth it!”).
Once the jackpot reaches the stratosphere, the media go nuts, with the same story on almost every broadcast. “Lotto Fever hits [your town’s name here],” it begins. Long lines of happy customers wave at the camera. The reporter asks the customers, “What will you do if you win?” The reporter never asks, “How much do you spend on the lottery?” or “Do you realize how much you would have by now if you put that money into an investment account?”
The story certainly never mentions buzzkill facts like these, from Investopedia: “In California, a study found that 40 percent of those who played the lottery were unemployed; in Maryland, the poorest one-third of its population buys 60% of all lottery tickets; and in Michigan, people without a high school diploma spent five times more on the lottery than those with a college education.” Nor is there much appetite to cite a report by the North American Foundation for Gambling Addiction Help that there are nearly 10 million people in the United States who struggle with a gambling habit.
Instead, the story ends with the reporter holding up her ticket, telling the anchors that, “if I win, you won’t be seeing me tomorrow!”
News outlets might take a cue from Pasadena, Calif., public radio station KPCC, which found that contributions to education from the California lottery—the principal reason cited for establishing it in the first place—had remained essentially static in California over the past 12 years, despite a doubling of revenues.
There’s a logical conclusion from all of this: No rational person should spend a dime on a Mega Millions ticket or Powerball ticket, right?
Well, that’s right if you’re spending 5 percent or 10 percent of an inadequate income on lottery tickets. But for the average buyer, the obvious foolishness of hoping for a 1 in 300 million win is balanced by the “psychic income” that you get with your $2.
What is psychic income? Merriam-Webster defines it as: “Rewards (as in prestige, leisure, or pleasant surroundings) not measurable in terms of money or goods.” Most of us might not be able to taste the difference between a $100 bottle of wine and a $20 bottle, but the mere fact that we’ve paid a princely sum for the wine delivers its own satisfaction.
In the case of a lottery ticket, the psychic income comes in the form of two or three days of richly rewarding fantasies. They may be material: “Here’s the house I’m going to buy, the car I’ll be driving, the travel I’ll begin.” They may be deliciously vengeful: “Here’s what I’m going to tell my boss or supervisor or shop steward before I quit; let me see the look on the face of my family member who scorned me as a failure.” They may be noble: “Here’s the education I can guarantee to every child in my extended family; here’s the hundreds of millions I can donate to worthy causes all over the world; here is every person who’s helped me or shown me kindness in my life that I can reward.”
These fantasies may even lack any coherence at all. The simple prospect of a sudden arrival of massive, unearned money can unsettle even the most rational of people. Years ago, my wife and I were having dinner at the home of a psychologist. When he heard that he might have four winning numbers, he spent 15 minutes frantically trying to learn how much he’d won. “Ring for the elevator!” he told one of his children. “Those guys always know how the lottery works!” (He calmed down only when he learned that he had three winning numbers, which won him nothing.)
It is as ludicrous to spend more than 10 seconds planning what to do with these prizes as it is to cower when we walk outside for fear of falling space debris. We know what the lust for unearned riches can do to the human spirit; writers from Mark Twain (“The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”) to Terry Southern (The Magic Christian) have told us. We know that state governments are happy to create a voluntary tax that lures the least comfortable among us and that the media are happy to feed these illusions.
But at another level, if things break the right way, this will be the last column of mine you’ll ever read.
The lottery takes advantage of the poor and unsophisticated. But even the losers are winners.
Mega Millions Scams
Mega Millions scams usually come in the form of advance-fee fraud schemes, which involve a fraudster falsely contacting individuals claiming that they are due a large sum of money.
On this page, you will find the various types of scams that lottery players should be aware of and tips on how to avoid them. It is important to note that it is not possible to win a prize for a lottery that you have not entered and Mega Millions representatives will never contact you regarding a win or fees before you receive your winnings.
How to Identify a Mega Millions Scam
Mega Millions scams take various forms, but here are some key features to look out for:
- Poor quality and incorrect grammar in a letter or email. The letter or email may be addressed to ’email holder’ or ‘winner’ or ‘reader’, rather than using the victim’s name.
- Some mail and email scams can look authentic, as scammers illegitimately use Mega Millions branding to persuade victims.
- The victim may receive a fake check, which can be attached to an email or letter and the fraudster might claim that it is for ‘government taxes’ or ‘expenses’.
- The correspondence sent to the victim will emphasise that they should act to claim their prize as soon as possible and urges them to keep it ‘confidential’. This is to make sure that the person who received the correspondence does not seek advice from others, which may expose the scam.
- The victim is asked to pay a ‘processing fee’ or ‘tax’ to be able to receive their winnings.
Types of Mega Millions Scams
Mega Millions scams can take five different forms:
An email is sent to the victim, letting them know that they have won a large sum of prize money and it asks them to pay ‘fees’ or ‘taxes’ if they want to receive the full prize winnings. A link to a website where prizes can be ‘claimed’ may also be included in the email, which could be used for ‘phishing’ personal information or installing spyware on the victim’s computer, giving the criminal access to private information.
Similar to email scams, a mail scam will try to convince the victim that they have won a huge sum of money and that they need to mail back a portion to be able to receive the full sum.
The fraudster calls the victim to notify them that they have won a large Mega Millions prize in the hope that they will agree to paying any ‘fees’ or ‘taxes’ to release the money. Scammers often use specific area codes that look like domestic U.S. phone numbers to trick victims, including; 876 (Jamaica), 473 (Grenada) and 268 (Antigua).
Scammers may also attempt to find out the victimвЂ™s bank details in order to access their accounts illicitly.
Scammers send a text message to the victim from an unknown number telling them that they have won a Mega Millions prize. To claim the prize, victims are requested to call the number back, often on a premium rate number.
The victim receives a message on their personal Facebook, Twitter or another social media platform notifying them that they have been selected to win a Mega Millions prize. They are then told to act immediately and follow a specific, often malicious, link to claim the prize.
How to Report a Lottery Scam
If you believe you have been contacted by a Mega Millions scammer, it is very important that you do not provide personal or financial information. If you already have, contact your bank as soon as possible to minimize the risk of identity fraud.
To report a lottery scam, you can contact your state’s Attorney General using the list provided by the National Association of Attorneys General: http://www.naag.org/naag/attorneys-general/whos-my-ag.php
Complaints can also be sent to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), a consumer protection agency: https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov
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Have you been the victim of a Mega Millions scam? Find out about the different types of scams and what action to take to avoid them.