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

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“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.”

Hitting the jackpot is not necessarily the salvation from financial problems, at least for those who've won more modest amounts. In a 2009 study of people who had won between $50,000 and $150,000 in the Florida Lottery, three economists found that if a winner had been in dire financial straits beforehand, the lottery money only postponed bankruptcy.

“What our study suggests is that bankruptcy is about something other than money,” says Mark Hoekstra, a professor at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. “Whatever got you into trouble did not change after you won the lottery – it was not just bad luck.”

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