According to Srivastava, that could well be what's happening. (The state lotteries insist that people simply forget to redeem break-even tickets, although it remains unclear why only some games show the anomaly.) "Just imagine if there were people who made a living off plundering the lottery," he says. "The first thing you'd want to do is avoid the losing or break-even tickets, which is why they're underreported. They're a waste of time. Instead, you'd want to buy only the tickets that made money. If there were people doing this, if there were people who could sort the winners from the losers, then what you'd see on the payout statistics is exactly what we see. This is what a plundered game looks like."
I then ask Srivastava how a criminal organization might plunder the lottery. He lays out a surprisingly practical plan for what he would do: "At first glance, the whole problem with plundering is one of scale," he says. "I probably couldn't sort enough tickets while standing at the counter of the mini-mart. So I'd probably want to invent some sort of scanning device that could quickly sort the tickets for me." Of course, Srivastava might look a little suspicious if he started bringing a scanner and his laptop into corner stores. But that may not be an insurmountable problem. "Lots of people buy lottery tickets in bulk to give away as prizes for contests," he says. He asked several Toronto retailers if they would object to him buying tickets and then exchanging the unused, unscratched tickets. "Everybody said that would be totally fine. Nobody was even a tiny bit suspicious," he says. "Why not? Because they all assumed the games are unbreakable. So what I would try to do is buy up lots of tickets, run them through my scanning machine, and then try to return the unscratched losers. Of course, you could also just find a retailer willing to cooperate or take a bribe. That might be easier." The scam would involve getting access to opened but unsold books of tickets. A potential plunderer would need to sort through these tickets and selectively pick the winners. The losers would be sold to unwitting customers—or returned to the lottery after the game was taken off the market.
At the moment, Srivastava's suspicions remain entirely hypothetical; there is no direct evidence that anybody has plundered a game. Nevertheless, there's a disturbing body of anecdotal evidence (in addition to those anomalous statistics) that suggests that the games aren't perfect. Consider a series of reports by the Massachusetts state auditor. The reports describe a long list of troubling findings, such as the fact that one person cashed in 1,588 winning tickets between 2002 and 2004 for a grand total of $2.84 million. (The report does not provide the name of the lucky winner.) A 1999 audit found that another person cashed in 149 tickets worth $237,000, while the top 10 multiple-prize winners had won 842 times for a total of $1.8 million. Since only six out of every 100,000 tickets yield a prize between $1,000 and $5,000, the auditor dryly observed that these "fortunate" players would have needed to buy "hundreds of thousands to millions of tickets." (The report also noted that the auditor's team found that full and partial ticket books were being abandoned at lottery headquarters in plastic bags.)