7th of May 2009 Author: Ava Jackuard
Canada was at the epicentre of a state lottery scandal last year in which statistics showed that an unnaturally large percentage of lottery ticket sellers were winning prizes.
The complaints triggered a massive investigation in two provinces which led to a considerable tightening up of the control systems, especially on winners' tickets that may have been dishonestly hi-jacked by ticket sellers checking the results for players.
This week similar fears have arisen south of the border in North Carolina, although the lottery management there seem to be taking a more laid-back approach to complaints, saying that ticket sellers just play more.
The Lottery Post reports that ticket sellers in the state are winning big and winning often, with some amassing significant jackpots repeatedly in $100 000, $300 000, and $500 000 prize territory....dozens of times a year.
Regular lottery fans who keep an eagle eye on results appear convinced that cheating, or outright theft of players' wins, is ongoing. Investigating teams from NewsChannel 36 I-Team scanned thousands of records of lottery winnings in spreadsheets obtained from the lottery under the Open Records Act, and agreed that some winners clearly stand out.
One player who religiously checks the lottery results each week complained that the same winners appeared to be cropping up continuously: "It's kind of like being struck by lightning five, six, seven times," she told Lottery Post.
B&S Variety store, a small convenience market located just off Interstate 40 near Morganton was flagged as an example. The owner of the store, Becky Ozmun, won a dozen jackpots in about 13 months - including a $10 000 payout and a $150 000 prize. Ozmun denied wrongdoing, saying she gambles a lot on scratch cards.
She's not the only store owner who sells tickets who has won big jackpots. Since January of 2008 - when the NC Lottery began asking winners to declare whether they were retailers or employed by retailers - at least 462 retailers have told the state they won jackpots over $600 each. At least 70 won more than once according to state records.
But these numbers depend on how forthcoming owners and clerks are when they answer the form. State lottery officials can check owners' forms against a database of social security numbers - unavailable to the public - but it's harder to pin down just who's working behind the counter at a convenience mart selling, and checking, lottery tickets.
Repeat winner Ozmun says it's a pretty simple process, "You just fill out a form. They ask you what you're going to do with the money."
Buried in thousands of records of winners are other retailers - store owners winning major prizes. One employee of a store selling tickets in eastern North Carolina won 10 times in a little over a year - including a $100 000 jackpot.
Another, at a retailer south of Asheboro and the son of the owner, won 27 times. Another family member at the same store won 39 times - all at the family's business.
Interviewed by Lottery Post, Tom Shaheen, the executive director of the North Carolina Education Lottery, said "Anything in life can happen. If there were thousands of cases of this I would say yes there is a problem."
Shaheen says the Lottery investigates complaints to its complaint line. But unlike some states North Carolina does not conduct other initiatives such as stings to catch dishonest clerks.
Lottery Post gives an example of such precautions from Camarillo in California, where a security camera video recorded the moment when a store clerk set aside a player's ticket worth $500 000 for himself, never informing the customer in front of him that he'd just won a major prize.
"That clerk tried to claim it," Bill Hertoghe, chief investigator for the California Lottery recalled. "Because of video evidence we were able to determine it was a theft and prosecute."
North Carolina has a more relaxed attitude, judging by Shaheen's answers to Lottery Post. Regarding clerks who pay the wrong amount on a ticket, he said, "We pay the player the difference and we charge back the retailer."
California more aggressively pursues such cases for possible prosecution, and scrutinises repeat winners. When asked what he would do if he saw a store owner in California win a dozen times, investigator Bill Hertoghe said, "We would subject that person to a claims investigation every time they submitted a claim."
Coincidentally with the North Carolina report, the Canadian province of Manitoba announced tougher laws and measures to investigate lottery retailers, to include frequent win and background probity checks.
Amendments to the Gaming Control Act were revealed this week by Attorney General Dave Chomiak, with changes that give the provincial authorities power to investigate lottery retailers before they are allowed to sell tickets, and take over the job of investigating public complaints.
"These amendments bring third-party, independent oversight to lottery ticket gaming through investigation and registration mandates similar to those in place for VLT site holders and industry employees and suppliers," Chomiak said. "This step consolidates regulatory responsibilities within the act to further fortify public confidence in lottery ticket sales and prize redemptions."
The news follows a CBC News I-Team investigation three months ago that found lottery clerks in Western Canada were winning at an unusually high rate.
The Manitoba Gaming Control Commission is also being given the authority to confirm the technical integrity of ticket-checking machines, which enable players to check their tickets directly at lottery ticket sites, as opposed to asking clerks to do so.
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