Cracking the Scratch Lottery Code

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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.)

According to Massachusetts State Lottery officials, the auditor's reports have led to important reforms, such as requiring everyone who claims a prize over $600 to present government-issued identification. The auditor attributed the high number of payouts going to single individuals to professional cashers. These cashers turn in others' winning tickets—they are paid a small percentage—so the real winners can avoid taxes. But if those cashers were getting prepicked winners, that could be hard to uncover. "There've been quite a bit of improvements since we started identifying these issues," says Glenn Briere, a spokesperson for Massachusetts auditor Joe DeNucci. "The problem is that when there's a lot of money involved, unscrupulous people are always going to be looking for new ways to game the system, or worse."

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