Easy Come, Easy Go

From elder scams to the Price is Right, stories from Minnesotans who gained or lost big bucks in an instant

Illustration by Lars Leetaru

The Gambler

“I’ve spent a lot of money gambling—I went to Vegas 10 times in one year, back in the ’90s. The most I ever lost at one sitting was about $1,000. Over a period of time, I might have lost $30,000.

The standard gambler thing is you win a big pot of money at the casino or lottery, and you say, ‘Now I’m almost even.’ A friend of mine has won $40,000–70,000 at one time, but then you’re giving it right back. Another friend went to New Orleans, won $9,000 in a few hours, then was pulling money out of his account to keep playing by the end.

Gambling’s usually not a winning proposition. Even the best players only win 30 percent of the time. You’re just trying to win one more than you lose. You get the fever and you’re doing whatever you do—pull-tabs, blackjack, slots—to get your fix. 

You don’t talk about that big win, you talk about the big loss, the one that got away. Gamblers love to talk: ‘What’s the biggest thing you ever lost?’ I always say ‘I lost $10K on a football game.’ 

I worked in the media, and before the 1998 NFL playoffs a client offered to sponsor all our broadcasts from the Super Bowl in Miami if the Vikings made it—I had a $10,000 commission on the line. 

So we’re watching the game, and here comes Gary Anderson, who had not missed a field goal all year long. And he comes out and misses it. I had already spent the money in my head—that was a new car that I could totally have used. It was a tough few days after that. I didn’t really want to talk about it. That loss is the one that still stings the most. Every time I watch them play, it flashes in front of me. If he just woulda made that kick….”

The Scam Victim

An 82-year-old Duluth woman receives a phone call from a stranger. She’s told she’s won a sweepstakes and will receive a new Mercedes Benz and $2.5 million in cash. She will then wire money to the stranger several times–purportedly to cover the cost of the car’s title and shipping—and even send the stranger $10,000 cash in an envelope. By the time her adult children learn of the scam 10 days later, the woman will have been bilked out of $47,000—money she will never see again. Peggy Hiestand-Harri shares her mother’s story:

“My mother was living alone on a limited income. She had lost close friends and was the last surviving member of her generation. This stranger who called occupied her day and filled her loneliness. 

My brother only found out about the scam because my mom was going to refinance her house and needed our signatures. Even after we intervened, she was still waiting on the porch steps for her prize. It took a while to sink in that this wasn’t the real thing, and when it did, she was devastated. The credit card bills for the wire transfers started coming in, and the interest was more than her income. There was no way she could have made those payments. She was fearful that her house would be taken away. My mom had to file for bankruptcy. My brother took over her finances.

After this happened, my mom dropped 40 pounds in a matter of three months; the ordeal took a toll on her health and well-being. She was depressed and isolated from her friends and the community. She didn’t want anyone to know. My mother was ashamed. She still struggles with it. 

My mother used to love giving gifts for birthdays and for Christmas, but she can’t do that like she did before, and so she doesn’t enjoy the holidays anymore. She still gets her hair done, but no longer has a long distance option on her phone. She can’t call some of her friends; she has to wait for them to call her or use my cell. 

I saw the vulnerability in my mom way before this happened. I thought a door-to-door salesman would try to sell her knives. I never imagined in a million years that someone would call her on the phone and tell her she’d won the lottery.” 

The Powerball Winner

“I hardly ever played the Powerball before I won it. I’m actually not much for gambling. When I won, the prize was $100,000. We were watching them read the numbers on TV, and my wife said ‘You have five numbers!’ I said ‘Are you sure?’ We were pretty excited until we realized we were four numbers away from matching all six, and the prize would have been 300-some million dollars.

You have to go into the lottery office to collect that kind of money, and they check that you don’t owe any taxes or child support. About a third of the money goes for taxes. It wasn’t a life-changing amount, and it went pretty fast. I gave our sons some fun money and put a dent in the mortgage. I heard from a few news stations wanting to do a story on us, and churches looking for donations—people do tend to hound you when it gets out.

We still play Powerball sometimes, but I haven’t won much since. I think that was my shot.”

The Price is Right Champ

Diana Person Solomon

“I was at a fitness conference in San Diego and decided to stay an extra day to go to Hollywood to try to get on The Price is Right. I love the show. I think it brings people so much innocent joy and pleasure, and it’s never at anyone else’s expense.

You have to wait for hours and then the producers interview everyone in groups of 15 to pick contestants. The guy asked me, ‘You drove here by yourself?’ I said ‘I will only be Diana Person one time, and I’m going to make the most out of this one life I’ve been given.’ I told him I’m the group fitness coordinator for the YWCA, and I led a little workout for my group, which made him laugh.

On TV, the studio is bigger than life, but you get in there and it’s teeny. The usher files me down to the third row, dead center. Then the guy shows the first cue card with the contestants’ names, and it says ‘Diana Person.’ I’m screaming ‘ohmygod,’ jumping up and down, running down to the stage.

I won a pair of smartphones and a calling plan, so I got to go on stage and play another game, which I lost. You’re completely unconscious; you don’t even know what’s happening because you’re so nervous. On the wheel spin, I got $1, so I got to go to the final showcase round along with this youth minister named Henry. I said to him, ‘You may have God on your side, but I have my own thing going on.’ He ended up overbidding his showcase, and I won mine. The prize was a spa retreat in Houston, Texas, a trip to London, and a trip to Hong Kong, plus $3,000 cash. They announce that I won it, and I’m running all over, fireworks are going off, I’m hugging all the models, just going crazy.

You can’t transfer the showcase prizes or take the cash value. You have 10 days to decide whether to take the trips within a year of the show’s airing. The hotels and trips are phenomenal. You’re in a five-star hotel; you hardly know how to act. It’s so beautifully, over-the-top exquisite. The trips were worth about $33,000, but $10,000 came straight out of our pocket in taxes. I understand why people forfeit their prizes, but it was still a deal. It was meant to be. I know it.”