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Biggest US lottery prize $640 million and growing

Clerk Abdulwali Mohamed Osaim validates Mega Millions lottery tickets at a convenience store on the east side of Manhattan March 30, 2012 in New York. AFP/Stan Honda
The online news portal of TV5

NEW YORK/ATLANTA - (UPDATE) The chance to get suddenly very, very rich -- even a one-in-176-million chance -- sent Americans into a frenzy Friday as the hours counted down to the Mega Millions lottery, at $640 million and still growing.

Mega Millions mania swept the country ahead of the 0300 GMT drawing.

In most participating states, tickets will be on sale Friday until 10:45 p.m. EST, lottery officials said.

The drawing will be held in Atlanta at 11 p.m. EST.

"There is a tremendous amount of buzz and excitement," said Margaret DeFrancisco, president and chief executive of the Georgia Lottery Corporation, on Friday.

It will be early Saturday morning before lottery officials verify whether there are any winning tickets, according to the Mega Millions website.

Ticket sales boomed at convenience stores and news kiosks, while newspapers, websites and on-air broadcasts buzzed with fantasies about life after winning the record jackpot.

It's a fantasy all the more powerful in a country with a weak jobs market and barely receding fear of recession.

But it really is a fantasy. The chances of scoring the winning number aren't the same as being killed by lightning -- they're considerably lower.

The jackpot is at a record level because no one has matched the magic five numbers and Mega Ball since January 24 -- a full 18 drawings with no winner. Given the pace of the ticket buying, the jackpot will go even higher.

As the Kansas City Star helpfully pointed out, this is the kind of money that would get you a Boeing 787 Dreamliner and a private island in Thailand or, say, a quarter share in a nuclear-powered attack submarine.

In New York, customers cramming into Midtown News, a hole-in-the-wall newspaper shop that sells the $1 tickets, had more modest dreams.

"If I won, I'd retire in New Zealand, because there are more sheep than humans there. Here in New York, there are too many people," said Romanian immigrant Cosmin Barbos, 37.

Barbos, who does maintenance at a Manhattan law office, said he'd give most of his fortune to charity. Roger Sierra, a 32-year-old chef said he'd give half.

"That's a promise I made, and I'd help my family. I'd buy a restaurant and we'd have food from all over the world -- French cuisine, American, steaks."

Although tickets cost only $1, the odds are so long that snapping them up in bulk would be of little use.

Organizers are also cautioning people about going too far.

"Although most people can play Mega Millions and other lottery games without ill effects, there are some people for whom gambling of any sort can be addictive and very damaging. Like other addictions, gambling addiction is a treatable disease," the lottery's website advises.

The lucky winner gets to choose between an immediate cash option or the full amount disbursed over 26 annual payments. The prize will then take a severe knock in federal and state taxes.

But whatever the final sum, it has already knocked the previous record drawing of $390 million in 2007, out of the park.

US media were quick to offer advice, with the Los Angeles Times providing locations of California ticket vendors that have sold winning tickets in recent lotteries. CBS gave the sober suggestion of hiring an investment advicer.

The New York Post, meanwhile, devoted an entire page to demonstrate that the premise of money making you happy does not always stand up.

"Winners beware!" the Post headline said over profiles of four seemingly lucky Americans who went "from jackpot to jack squat."

These included the cautionary tale of Jack Whittaker, who won $315 million in 2002 and lost the lot to thieves and hard living, while his daughter and granddaughter both died from drug overdoses.

Mega Millions is played in 42 US states plus the capital Washington and the Virgin Islands.

About half of the lottery money goes back to ticket holders in the form of winnings, 35 percent to state governments and 15 percent to retailer commissions and lottery operating expenses.

If there is no winner Friday night, lottery officials are considering moving the next drawing to Times Square in New York City as the anticipation and jackpot build, DeFrancisco said.

"It's the number one media market in the world," she said. "It's the world stage."