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Check Your Tickets! $18 Million In Lottery Winnings Went Unclaimed In 2016

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - Winning millions of dollars could change your life, right? But, can you imagine winning the lottery and missing out on the prize money?

Well, it happens.

People win every year and never claim their winnings. In fact, $18 million in prizes went unclaimed last year in Pennsylvania alone.

Winning lottery tickets expire, and if you don't claim your prize in time, you're out of luck.

Randy Gajewski, of Johnstown, can tell you all about it.

He plays the lottery every day, but when he hit for $50,000, he didn't even realize it because he never checked the ticket.

"Never paid attention to the numbers," said Gajewski. "Forgot about it."

His winning Quinto prize was about to expire when the lottery terminal at Jackie's Toss and Wash alerted the owner. The winning numbers flashed on the screen.

"I recognized them right away as soon as I saw it," said Andy Alvarez, co--owner of the business.

He recognized them because Gajewski always plays the same numbers. So, he called him up to tell him he'd better find the ticket in the next two weeks.

"I said, "Yep, that's my number,'" said Gajewski.

"He said he had the ticket. He just had to locate it," said Alvarez.

So where was it? Could he find it with just 14 days left?

"I was nervous. They were like, 'You probably threw that ticket away,'" said Gajewski.

We'll explain what happened with Gajewski in a moment, but first, the bigger question of unclaimed prize money.

"About $18.8 million in lottery prizes unfortunately went unclaimed and expired," said Gary Miller, of the Pennsylvania Lottery.

And that's just last year. KDKA-TV's David Highfield traveled to lottery headquarters outside Harrisburg to find out how it's possible.

"The majority of the prizes that expire are smaller prizes, in the range of $1 to $10," said Miller. "Unfortunately, even large prizes expire sometimes."

For instance, a winning Millionaire Raffle ticket worth $1 million was sold at a Giant Eagle in Latrobe in 2010. But, no one came forward to claim the prize.

The same thing happened in Finleyville, Washington County. A $1 million Powerball prize sold in 2014 expired before anyone claimed it.

They also have winning Cash 5 tickets expire worth $100,000 or $200,000.

"It's possible you may put your ticket in your coat pocket," said Miller. "Maybe in your glove box in your car, maybe the draw next to the sink, and forget to check it."

Roger Custer is lucky he didn't lose his ticket. He unknowingly carried a winning Powerball ticket worth $33 million on a five-day hunting trip.

"In the rain and snow, believe or not. In my back pocket," said Custer at a press conference. "You got to have your license with you and that's where I stuck the ticket."

Fortunately, he brought the ticket home and was able to claim the prize.

But had he lost it: "No ticket. No prize," said Miller.

In Pennsylvania, tickets expire one year from the drawing date, and the lottery does want winners to come forward in time. In fact, it alerts the media before big prizes are about to go unclaimed.

The hope is that reports on the news will get people in that area to check tickets before they're no longer valid.

The Pennsylvania Lottery has also made it easier to check tickets.

Not just with scanners in stores but with an app that now allows you to scan both regular tickets and scratch-offs.

"All they have to do is the hold the phone over the ticket, scan the bar code, and it'll tell them right away if they're a winner," said Miller.

Despite all that, Alvarez said, "I've seen so many tickets get thrown away. Even these scratch-offs, people throw them in the trash; and people pick them out and they're winners."

That brings us back to Gajewski.

"I knew it was somewhere," he said. "Hopefully, I didn't throw it away."

He was searching for his winning ticket worth $50,000 with just days left before it expired.

He keeps his old tickets in a box, but had lost the box during remodeling.

"I finally found the box, and I was like it's got to be in this," said Miller. "So, I was going through every ticket, you know?"

Eventually, he did find it and was able to claim his prize. He even bought a truck with part of the winnings.

But, Gajewski could have very easily missed out.

"And it would have been gone," said Gajewski. "It would have been a shame. A shame."

So, he offers some friendly advice to fellow lottery players.

"Double check and triple check. Don't throw any away," he said.

The amount of unclaimed winnings has generally been going down over the years and that may be because it's now easier to check tickets.

Also, the $18 million does not include scratch-off tickets that go unclaimed.

The Pennsylvania Lottery really doesn't have a way of keeping track of those because they don't know if the winners are unclaimed or just haven't been sold yet.

Unclaimed lottery money goes back into the Pennsylvania Lottery fund, so it goes to help older people, as the lottery proceeds do in general.

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