Cracking the Scratch Lottery Code

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He began by looking at other tic-tac-toe games in the US and Canada. Srivastava soon discovered that it wasn't just an Ontario problem. At the time, one of his best friends was living in Colorado, and Srivastava asked him to send along a few tickets. It turned out that the same singleton trick also worked on the Colorado game, albeit with only a 70 percent level of accuracy. (Colorado Lottery officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Srivastava was even able to break a Super Bingo game (sold in Ontario in 2007), which also featured an elaborate baited hook. In this case, he says he could sort winners from losers with a 70 percent success rate. The Ontario Lottery says the Super Bingo game didn't have the same flaw as the tic-tac-toe game but that it was pulled off the Ontario market in March 2007 as a precaution.

In North America, the vast majority of lottery tickets—everything from daily draw Pick 4-style games to small-stakes tic-tac-toe and bingo scratchers—are produced by a handful of companies like Scientific Games, Gtech Printing, and Pollard Banknote. These publicly traded firms oversee much of the development, algorithm design, and production of the different gambling games, and the state lotteries are largely dependent on their expertise. Ross Dalton is president of Gtech Printing, and he acknowledges that the "breakability" of tickets is a constant concern. (Several other printing companies declined to comment.) "Every lottery knows that it's one scandal away from being shut down," Dalton says. "It's a constant race to stay ahead of the bad guys." In recent years, Dalton says, the printers have become increasingly worried about forensic breaking, the possibility of criminals using sophisticated imaging technology to see underneath the latex. (Previous forensic hacks have included vodka, which swelled the hidden ink, and the careful use of X-Acto knives.) The printers have also become concerned about the barcodes on the tickets, since the data often contains information about payouts. "We're always looking at new methods of encryption and protection," Dalton says. "There's a lot of money at stake in these games."

While the printers insist that all of their tickets are secure—"We've learned from our past security breaches," Dalton says—there is suggestive evidence that some state lotteries have been gamed. Consider 2003 payout statistics from Washington and Virginia, which Srivastava calculated. (Many lotteries disclose claimed prizes on their websites.) In both states, certain scratch games generated payout anomalies that should be extremely rare. The anomalies are always the same: Break-even tickets—where the payout is equal to the cost—are significantly underredeemed while certain types of winning tickets are vastly overredeemed. Take a blackjack scratch ticket sold by Virginia: While there were far too few $2 break-even winners redeemed, there were far too many $4, $6, $10, and $20 winners. In fact, the majority of scratch games with baited hooks in Washington and Virginia displayed this same irregularity. It's as if people had a knack for buying only tickets that paid out more than they cost.

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