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Note to Mega Millions lottery winner: Beware! (+video)

Sure, the jackpot for the Mega Millions lottery is an all-time high of $640 million – and ticket sales on Friday are through the roof. But winning brings its own complications. Read on.

By Ron SchererStaff writer, Kara Bloomgarden-SmokeContributor / March 30, 2012

Giselle Docouto sits in a chair as she waits in line to purchase Mega Millions lottery tickets outside the Primm Valley Lotto Store in Primm, Calif., on Thursday.

Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun/AP

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Here's a cautionary tale for anyone dreaming of winning the record $640 million Mega Millions jackpot Friday night: It’s a dangerous world out there for lottery winners.

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The jackpot in the Mega-Millions lottery drawing Friday is set to an all-time record triggering lottery mania across the United States.

The winner, warns Chicago lawyer Andrew Stoltmann, will be besieged by con artists, investment scams, family members whom they haven’t seen in decades, and scores of charities – some legitimate, some imaginary. 

“It is tragic,” says Mr. Stoltmann, who represents a man whose $5.5 million lottery winnings were wiped out due to what the lawyer says was bad investment advice.

Others say what's tragic is that more people don’t pay heed to the miniscule chance of winning the Mega Millions. According to lottery officials, the odds of possessing the winning ticket are 1 in 176 million – meaning an individual would be more likely to get hit by lightning or be eaten by a shark. One statistician notes that the Chicago Cubs have a better chance of winning the World Series this year.

“People know there are long odds,” says Scott Hoover, a professor of business administration at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. “But people are irrational in buying. They see it as a form of entertainment because if you look at it as an investment, it’s a horrible thing to do.”

Some buyers are well aware that winning is a very remote possibility. At New York’s Port Authority bus terminal, Henry Wallace is among the lottery players lined up Friday at a Hudson News kiosk. 

“I figure it’s about the same as the chances of Nicole Kidman walking into the Port Authority and handing me an Oscar,” says Mr. Wallace, who works for the Bergen County (New Jersey) government. “But why not? It’s just a dollar and a dream.”

But this week, for every American who sees buying a ticket as a waste of good money, there's another who is eager to be parted from his or her earnings. The pace at which Mega Millions tickets have been selling is phenomenal. Since Tuesday, Mr. Hoover estimates, people have spent about $600 million on tickets – and perhaps as much as $1.2 billion since the last winner on Jan. 24. In Massachusetts, tickets were selling at the rate of 14,000 per minute on Friday, says Beth Bresnahan, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Lottery.

“This is unprecedented,” says Ms. Bresnahan. “The scale of this thing is driving the increase. People are coming out of the woodwork.”

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