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Lost Lottery Ticket?

Here's what to do. Plus: Find unclaimed lottery prizes.

Ever wonder what happens to unclaimed lottery prizes? Or how about lost winning lottery tickets? Well, wonder no more. Here are the answers to those vexing state lottery mysteries.

The odds of winning the lottery are slim. Hitting the big jackpot in multistate games — such as Mega Millions and Powerball — can be 1 in 100 million or more. Yet Americans keep trying. Recent Gallup polls found that about half of all Americans play state lotteries. It's not surprising, then, that some winning tickets get lost or go unclaimed.

In many cases, if you find a winning ticket lying around, you can still reap the rewards so long as you don’t wait too long. Depending on where you live, you might have as long as a year to cash it in. Losing your ticket is another matter altogether. The chances of claiming your prize on a lost lottery ticket are about as good as the odds of winning the lottery again.

Rules governing lotteries vary from state to state and from game to game, but in general winning tickets can be redeemed anywhere from 180 to 365 days after the drawing or official end date of the game. Scratch-off tickets have a shorter life span, with the expiration in some states being just 90 days.

If you think you have a winning ticket, you can contact your state’s lottery office by phone, mail or the Internet. Unclaimed lottery prizes are often listed on state lottery websites. Iowa, for example, lists all lottery prizes of $600 or more online, while Wisconsin has a hot line that’s open during normal business hours. In New York, you can send an e-mail.

If you lost your lottery ticket, the best chance you have of claiming your reward is if you signed the back of the ticket and someone returns it to you. That’s because in most states the law requires the state to pay the person whose name is on the back of the winning ticket. Consider yourself warned: Sign your lottery tickets as soon as you buy them.

If you didn’t sign your lost lottery ticket, anyone who finds it can sign it and collect the winnings. Your signature doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the ticket back, but it does prevent someone else from profiting from your bad luck. On a related note, lottery scams are common, so beware of unsolicited calls or e-mails claiming that you're a winner.

Since not all unclaimed prizes find their rightful owners, the question is: Where does that money go? Some states put the money into future lottery games, while others give the cash back to the community. In New York, for example, unclaimed prize money is returned to the prize pool. In Wisconsin, unclaimed prizes are used to help offset property taxes. Unclaimed prizes in Ohio are turned over to an education fund that supports K-12 students.

See our state-by-state guide to unclaimed lottery prizes.>>