Last week, Walid Quran found himself in the Florida Lottery’s West Palm Beach office, trying to explain to an investigator how he came by a $1,000 winning ticket.
It was an innocent mistake, the 42-year-old store clerk told the lottery agent. He didn’t mean to keep it.
His explanation wasn’t good enough for lottery officials, though — they arrested him on a felony charge of dealing in stolen property.
Quran was one of five people arrested by lottery agents last week as part of undercover operations stemming from a March 30 Palm Beach Post investigation of frequent lottery winners. Among explanations for frequent winnings: store clerks stealing tickets from legitimate winners.
The five, all from South Florida, were arrested for either stealing winning tickets from an undercover agent or trying to redeem them for cash. Lottery officials would not comment on the arrests.
Since The Post’s investigation ran, lottery officials are investigating 96 retailers who are frequent winners and have stopped sales at 49 stores, including at least five identified by The Post.
Theft of winning tickets by clerks and cashiers is common in lotteries. One of the best methods to stop it was introduced by the California Lottery several years ago. They began doing undercover operations, with agents posing as customers to catch thieving clerks.
Although Florida Lottery investigators started the operations in 2010, with clerks stealing tickets 10 percent of the time, the lottery’s efforts have been meager compared to California’s.
The latest arrests are a sign the lottery is being more aggressive.
But Quran said he was unfairly targeted and his arrest cost him his job.
“It was a setup from the police,” he said Monday.
Quran said he was working as a cashier at the Bargain Grocery store at 2901 N.W. 19th St. in Fort Lauderdale last month when a customer came in. Quran didn’t know the man was a lottery agent working undercover and wearing a microphone and camera.
The man asked Quran to check if his tickets included a winner. That’s a common request by lottery players, who want to double-check that their tickets aren’t winners before they throw them away.
Quran said he was busy with other customers, but he scanned the tickets in the terminal anyway. When the screen didn’t show any winners, he said he told the customer as much and asked the man if he wanted his tickets back.
“He told me to throw them in the garbage, so I did,” Quran said.
But Quran says that in his haste, he made a mistake. One of the tickets was worth $1,000.
The lottery terminal screen will show a winner if it’s below $600, he said. That’s the threshold for how much a store can pay out; anything more than that, and the customer has to go to a district office to redeem the ticket.
If the ticket is worth more than $600 — or if it’s a loser — the machine will print off a receipt, he said. Quran said once he heard the sound of the terminal printing a ticket, he assumed it was for a losing ticket. He realized his mistake moments later, when he glanced at the receipt, he said.
By then it was too late to undo his mistake, he said.
“I went outside the door to look for him, not even two minutes later,” he said, but the man was gone.
Quran said he didn’t want to cash the ticket himself because he didn’t want to pay taxes on it. One of his co-workers, Leroy Rogers, offered to do it for him, for about $200, Quran said.
When he tried to redeem it at the West Palm Beach district office near Okeechobee Boulevard and Florida’s Turnpike, lottery officials flagged it. They arrested Quran on a charge of dealing in stolen property, and arrested Rogers on dealing in stolen property and passing a lottery ticket with intent to defraud.
Rogers declined comment.
Dealing in stolen property is a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Quran said he doesn’t play the lottery and has never won. Although lottery records show that someone with a similar name has won 19 times for $105,000 between 2001 and 2010, there have been no wins since 2010.
The others arrested were:
- Celedina Labastida, 36, a clerk at the Food Plus store at 6900 W. 16th Ave., Hialeah. She is accused of taking the agent’s ticket and trying to redeem it at a district office the same day. She declined comment.
- Tania Moncada, 32, a clerk at Roque Gulf Service, 2745 N.W. 22nd Ave., Miami. She is accused of taking the agent’s ticket and redeeming it five days later. She could not be reached for comment.
- Jose Calleja. Details on him and his arrest were not available Monday.
The lottery is now encouraging players to sign the back of their tickets, to prevent ticket theft and transferring tickets illegally.
The Post found lottery winners who were cashing in tickets against incredible odds. Most of the top 10 winners were store clerks or owners.
The most prolific winner was cashing in a ticket worth $600 or more every 11 days, on average, for seven years. Three days after The Post’s story ran, he admitted to lottery investigators that he was cashing in tickets for store operators, who paid him 10 percent of the winnings and kept 18 percent for themselves, paying the legitimate winners 72 cents on the dollar.
The legitimate winners either didn’t want to make the trip to a district office or wanted to avoid paying taxes or child support on their lottery winnings, he said.
Gaming the lottery
The Palm Beach Post first reported in March that the Florida Lottery was paying out large amounts to repeat winners over many years against all odds. In a follow-up, The Post reported that the state’s most prolific winner had been cashing winning tickets on behalf of store owners for a share of the proceeds. See The Post stories at mypalmbeachpost.com/gaming-the-lottery.