When people play the lottery, they hope they will beat the odds. Many do so every day. Over time, a few can beat the odds multiple times.
That people beat the odds every day shouldn’t be surprising. Much of the money from lottery ticket sales is won by players as prizes. Many win a prize that makes their day. Some win big prizes. Along the way, the fun and games raise money for a good cause.
Your newspaper’s report “Against all odds” raised a question about a few who have won multiple times in almost 10 years of play. It implied that someone could be “gaming the system.”
For a lottery, you couldn’t raise a more important issue than integrity. Players and the public expect games to be run fairly. Everybody who buys a ticket should have the same chance to win. And in North Carolina, they do.
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Any implication that security is lax at the N.C. Education Lottery is off base too. The lottery has a strong security program to stop anyone from “gaming the system” and has worked to make it stronger every year. Audits of the lottery’s security program are regularly done. The most recent audit examining overall security called it “exemplary,” and said it continues to be enhanced.
The report’s question that some may be “gaming the system” is based on a statistical study that asserts the odds of multiple wins for a few players seem improbable. The lottery knows who it pays prizes to and how often that occurs. Only the player knows how often they play and how much they spend.
Can a statistical model that does not factor in how much a player spent trying to win prizes calculate accurately what the odds were to achieve the wins? Perhaps the professors will share their work and someone can answer that question.
The lottery cannot refuse to pay someone a prize because a statistical model suggests the win might be improbable. The lottery can and does take action whenever it has clear evidence of fraud or cheating.
In the cases spotlighted in the newspaper’s report, it did not have any evidence that would allow it to deny a player a prize. For those who don’t know how we work to suggest we have our “heads in the sand” on security or we “make it easy for people to do the wrong thing” seems unfair. Hard-working and principled journalists probably feel the same way when they are accused of bias or sloppy work.
From day one, the lottery has striven to operate openly and transparently. Players should know who the winners are. The public should know where the money goes. Just as journalists believe their work is important to good government, we believe listening to our constituents, supporters and critics, and responding to questions and concerns will make for a better lottery over time.
The report ended with five recommendations for improving the lottery. With the goal of operating the best lottery we can, we will give each recommendation its due and a good review. Here’s a first take.
1. Don’t bet where you work. Retailers are not lottery employees. They are business partners. Every lottery in the U.S. allows lottery retailers to play games. One state lottery will not award a prize to retailers if the ticket that wins is purchased at their stores. Most North Carolina retailers have set a policy themselves to create an arms-length transaction when an employee buys a lottery ticket. Eighty percent report having a “No Play on Duty” policy for employees, including 99 percent of corporate retailers such as grocery or convenience store chains. The lottery does recommend that retailers not allow employees to play lottery at the store where they work. The lottery commission is reviewing this issue to see if a more aggressive stance is warranted.
2. Increase stings. The lottery does undercover stings. Two have been done so far and a third is near completion. Undercover stings are a good tool, but just one tool in a lottery’s security program. If a sting catches a retailer stealing or cheating, then the lottery can take action. When that occurs, it is an indication that something went wrong somewhere along the line. Comprehensive security measures are in place to look for retailers who could be stealing lottery tickets or who turn in prizes for others seeking to avoid having taxes, debts to state or local government, or child support withheld from lottery prizes. The measures include proactive tools such as education, training and security audits and detective strategies to look for and detect suspicious activity as well as investigate complaints and illegal activities.
3. Add more self-scanning machines. Done. Almost two-third of lottery locations already have a way for players to scan their own tickets. Sometime between December and April of next year, all locations will. Soon, our smartphone app will also have that capability.
4. Make ticket reselling a crime. The lottery terminates the lottery licenses for any retail owner who buys a ticket from a player at a discounted prize and they face disciplinary action, including suspension of their license, if an employee does. In North Carolina, as in most states, no policy or law prohibits a lottery players from giving a ticket away or selling it to someone else. Such a policy appears difficult and costly to enforce, but the lottery will give this a review. The lottery will ask the three states where such policies exist if they are effective and if the benefits are worth the costs.
5. Spotlight retailer discipline. When lottery retailers lose their license for misconduct, it is the lottery’s practice to ban that store owner from selling lottery tickets again. The lottery can and will issue media releases on undercover operations when they are complete and post those on the website. It currently reports publicly the names of retailers who win a prize of $100,000 or more in cases when the ticket was purchased at their store. The lottery does not withhold information on the suspension or termination of retailers, but it will review if that information can be and should be more easily accessible to players and the public.
While security of lottery games in North Carolina is strong, no system is perfect. There’s always someone trying to beat the system. As security audits have found, the North Carolina Education Lottery is committed to continuous improvement of its security systems and practices. Our goal is that North Carolinians who buy a lottery ticket can be confident that they have the same chances of winning as anyone else.
Executive Director, N.C. Education Lottery