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In tough times, dreams of easy money

At a time when even those willing to work cannot find jobs, it is tempting to dream of easy ways to make money — quickly and with minimal effort
/ Source: Business Week

Many metal detector enthusiasts never find more than old bottle caps, a few dollars in loose change, and some cheap jewelry in their searches, but on the afternoon of Aug. 14, in a horse pasture near Ridgeland, S.C., relic hunter Laszlo Eles unearthed what he believes to be a more valuable find: a silver half dime from 1795, minted when George Washington was President. The South Carolina resident has not yet taken it to an appraiser, but Eles estimates it is worth about $10,000 — and he plans to hold on to the coin until the economy improves. In his 25 years as a hobbyist, this is not the first time he has come across a valuable item. In 2005, Eles found a South Carolina copper slave tag and sold it for $15,000 to a collector in California.

If only fate were so kind to us all. At a time when even those willing to work cannot find jobs and public disillusionment is high, according to a Bloomberg National Poll, it is tempting to dream of easy ways to make money — quickly and with minimal effort. After all, it has been done before.

First Texas Products, a metal detector manufacturer, and Kellyco Metal Detectors, the world's largest distributor of hobby metal detectors, tell that their sales are up. Also, lottery ticket sales in North America increased by 1.5 percent in fiscal 2010 over last year, according to the North American Association of State & Provincial Lotteries.

While many Americans dream of a windfall that will take care of their financial needs for life, the sobering reality is most of us are not getting far: U.S. Census Bureau data show median household income barely changed in the 10 years following 1998 as the price of housing and other goods increased. In consumer price index-adjusted dollars, the median household income in 2008 was $50,303, compared with $51,295 in 1998.

The odds of finding buried treasure or marrying a billionaire are slim, but true stories of average people striking it rich continue to kindle many dreamers' fantasies.

One incredible example: Las Vegas-resident Joan Ginther has won the Texas lottery four times since 1993, bringing in more than $20 million in total winnings, as reported by ABC News. The World Records Academy named her the world's luckiest lottery winner in July after Ginther's latest success: $10 million from a scratch ticket.

In the U.K., Terry Herbert, an amateur metal detectorist hunting on a friend's farm last year unearthed 1,600 pieces of 7th century gold and silver pieces, the largest haul of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever found, according to The Times of London. The discovery, made using a second-hand detector he bought for about $4, is worth some $5.1 million, which Herbert will split with the landowner.

While experienced hunters research historic sites where older and more valuable items are more likely to be found, Stuart Auerbach, founder and chief executive of Kellyco Metal Detectors, says often it's "dumb luck."

Auerbach says Kellyco's annual sales have been growing in the double digits for the past seven years. Mike Scott, director of sales at First Texas Products, says year-to-date sales are up more than 30 percent over the same period in 2009.

"This is one of the best years ever, and I think it's because of the economy," says Scott, a recreational hunter himself who once helped a family find more than 1,000 pounds of silver coins on their property. "It's one of those strike-it-rich mentalities. Some people say, 'Maybe I'll find the big one one day.'"

Even in good times, people have a strong fascination with easy money. The lottery industry, for instance, is bigger than either the music or movie industry, according to the North American Association of State & Provincial Lotteries.

Government-run lotteries generated more than $70 billion in gross sales in North America during the fiscal year ended June, up $1 billion year on year, according to the association. By comparison, Box Office reported that 2009 box office sales in the U.S. and Canada were about $10.6 billion, and IFPI estimates that global music sales were $17 billion last year.

"Hard work is useful when it's productive," says Gary Fong, author of "The Accidental Millionaire," a memoir about how he succeeded as a wedding photographer and inventor with the help of some unforeseen coincidences. His mantra is to relax and stop worrying about expectations — success comes when one least expects it. While most people will encourage you to pursue your goals through hard work, Fong says, "I have a little saying: When the going gets tough, bail."

Of course, riches, easily acquired or hard won, may not necessarily be all they are cracked up to be. Research by the University of Colorado at Boulder shows that materialistic people are not only less liked by others but also less happy. So think twice the next time you buy that lottery ticket or take out that metal detector.