Casinos rake in deserted jackpots - Tuesday 12th of July 2005

Two Detroit casinos have pocketed about $650,000 since 2003 in winnings that forgetful gamblers neglected to claim before they expired.

The winnings, issued on paper tickets that expire after 180 days, were among $12.6 million in uncashed prizes and chips at all three casinos over the last 30 months. Unlike abandoned awards from the state lottery and racetracks, most of which are returned for public use, casinos keep the unclaimed cash.

"Its just pure gravy for them," said Anthony Curtis, editor of Las Vegas Advisor, a consumer newsletter that tracks casinos. "A lot of those tickets simply walk out the door and never return." Unlike chips, newfangled paper tickets that many MGM Grand Detroit and Greektown slot machines emit in place of coins expire. After that, the cash boosts their bottom line.

"The winner is the loser, and thats not right," said casino regular Leonard Wesley, 31, of Detroit.

Cashless slot machines became the rage industrywide about three years ago as a way to replace heavy tubs of metal tokens.

Known as "ticket-in, ticket-out," the technology lets players insert bills or coins into a slot machine and get their prizes or unwagered money back in the form of a bar-coded paper ticket. Patrons can take the voucher to another machine to continue gambling or insert it into an ATM-like device to claim their cash.

MGM Grand Detroit installed the cashless gaming machines in late 2002 and 2003; Greektown followed suit in 2004.

Thanks to forgetful patrons, MGM Detroit has snapped up $331,335 in unclaimed tickets since 2002, while Greektown has reaped $318,370 since 2004.

"The vast majority of these uncashed tickets are very, very tiny, like under a dollar in value," said Bob Berg, spokesman for MGM Detroit Grand.MotorCity Casino is running a trial program with coinless technology, but it does not use paper tickets for payouts. Winnings with the Club Metro Card program are logged into the gamblers electronic account, but the casino does not claim the balance as revenue, according to Rhonda Cohen, chief financial operator at MotorCity.

Uncashed table-game chips account for the majority of the unclaimed prizes in Detroit casinos, about $3.3 million in Metro Detroit last year.

Casinos expect a certain number of chips to be in circulation at any given time.

But chips and tokens dont expire, so many gamblers, such as Doug MacPherson, 25, of Sterling Heights, can return them.

"I always have a couple of low-value chips in my pocket when I get home, and I just throw them in a junk drawer," he said. "Ill get them out when I go to that casino again."

Michigan allows the casinos to record the value of unredeemed tickets and chips as income because it is standard industry practice, according to Dan Gustafson, executive director of the Michigan Gaming Control Board.

Michigan emulated Nevada in allowing expiration dates on ticket-in, ticket-out slips because thats the jurisdiction in which the technology was first developed, according to Gustafson. Louisiana regulations also permit the slips to expire, but New Jersey casino regulators specified that the slips may not expire when they ruled to permit coinless technology.

Michigan legislators approved the technology that allows casinos to have ticket-in, ticket-out machines. Gaming regulators in Michigan, except for special requests, dont know how much cash the casinos reap when gamblers walk off with uncashed tickets.

That differs from the policies in place for other forms of gambling, such as the Michigan Lottery and unclaimed horse racetrack winnings.

Unclaimed Michigan Lottery cash funnels into the states School Aid Fund, a restricted fund that can only be used for education, according to lottery spokeswoman Andi Brancato. Michigan Lottery players missed out on $31 million worth of lottery winnings in 2004, including Michigans portion of two Mega Millions jackpots totaling $5.9 million.

Meanwhile, people who bet on the ponies at Northville Downs and Hazel Park Harness Raceway walked away without cashing more than $1 million in 2004, the bulk of the $1.4 million that racetrack bettors left behind statewide last year. Track patrons have 60 days to collect their winnings before betting slips expire. Michigans seven racetracks keep half of the value of uncashed wagering slips, called "outs" in track lingo. The other half goes to the Michigan Agricultural Equine Fund, which provides the purse money for horse-related competitions at county fairs, said Dominic Perrone, spokesman for the Office of the Racing Commissioner.

"It creates incentives to breed and race horses in Michigan," he said.

Casinos could take a tip from the lottery and racetracks and funnel the unclaimed winnings toward the public good, said Mary Koczara, a small-business owner from Farmington.

"Its really not their money because someone did win it," she said.

"It should go to the school aid fund."

Gustafson said a Michigan lawmaker about a year ago requested data on unclaimed winnings, but that no legislators have proposed diverting the unclaimed winnings into a state fund. Any money found on a businesses property -- whether its a stray dollar bill or uncashed casino prizes -- is the property of the business, he said.

"If you find $20 lying on the floor in Wal-Mart, legally that $20 belongs to Wal-Mart," he said. "In this case, anything left or not collected at the casino is the property of the casino."

Casinos also each year have patrons who neglect to claim a jackpot for reasons other than minor forgetfulness. Gamblers must give their names, addresses and Social Security number for tax purposes for jackpots of $1,200 or more, and those with felony arrest warrants might opt to duck out, Gustafson said.

"Slips are very convenient because you just stick in it the payout machine and you dont have to wait," Koczara said. "But cashing chips can take some time. If the line is long, youre going to say forget it, Ill get it next time."

MGM spokesman Berg said like checks and coupons, expiration dates are needed to help keep accounting books accurate.

"It has to be written off after a period of time. You just cant leave it on the books forever," he said, adding MGM will cash expired tickets, but that patrons rarely bring them in. Greektown will also honor an expired ticket.

The industrys love affair with the electronic ticket payment machines is mainly based on the cost-saving attributes of machines, said Curtis, the Las Vegas gaming expert. But the technology also capitalizes on human error.

"Without question, they are absolutely making more money because of this," he said. "Its great for the consumer, but there is that problem that people forget or dont bother. Its an extra for the casino."

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