Florida Lottery announces changes in response to The Post's investigation on repeat winners

The Florida Lottery on Tuesday announced that it would adopt several safeguards to prevent fraud and protect players.

The announcement follows a Palm Beach Post investigation published Sunday that revealed that many players may be winning big prizes too often. It also comes as legislators consider taking more control of the lottery by placing it under a gambling commission.

The lottery will adopt software to track frequent winners in real time, roll out more self-checking terminals at its outlets and name stores where clerks have stolen winning tickets, lottery Secretary Cynthia O’Connell said in a statement to The Post.

“For us to succeed in our mission, we have to ensure that activities conducted by the lottery are transparent and free of fraud,” she wrote.

Gov. Rick Scott, whose office oversees the lottery and appoints the lottery secretary, echoed her statement, telling The Post Wednesday: “I know the secretary of the lottery takes everything seriously and wants to make sure it’s done properly and with transparency and we’re going to make sure there is no fraud.”

Sen. Maria Sachs, vice chairwoman of the Senate Gaming Committee and an advocate of more legislative control of the lottery, told The Post: “What your investigation has shown is that we need greater oversight.”

The Post showed that about 200 people were defying lottery odds over the last decade to cash in tens or hundreds of winning tickets worth $600 or more. One Pompano Beach man was credited with collecting $719,000 from 252 winning lottery tickets in a six-year span.

Mathematicians calculated that nine of the 10 most prolific winners would have lost up to $2 million trying to win so many times.

In other states, such winning patterns have been found to be associated with criminal activity. Frequent winners in other states were found to have been store clerks stealing tickets from unsuspecting customers, “ticket cashers” who helped lottery winners avoid back taxes or child support and criminals using the lottery to launder money.

While The Post’s analysis of public records couldn’t determine whether crimes have been committed, the lottery, which could, was paying little attention.

Last week, the lottery acknowledged for the first time that it conducted undercover stings, an action The Post wrote is usually well-publicized in other states to deter theft or black-market sale of winning tickets.

In the stings, the lottery has agents pose as customers and ask clerks to scan their tickets to check for winners — a common request by customers.

They’ve caught 19 people stealing tickets, but never announced those arrests.

The Florida Lottery now will name the stores where clerks are convicted of stealing tickets. O’Connell said the move should deter clerks and give customers confidence in stores.

The lottery also will roll out more self-checking terminals. Only 54 percent of outlets have the machines, which let customers check tickets themselves, rather than relying on clerks, to determine if they have a winner. Other lotteries have found that some clerks lie to customers, telling them they had no winners while pocketing winning tickets.

O’Connell did not say how many more stores would get the machines.

In another change prompted by The Post’s story, the lottery will adopt software to track frequent winners in real time.

Sachs, D-Delray Beach, has been an advocate of folding the lottery into a state gambling commission, which would be overseen by legislators and include all forms of gambling in the state. She said The Post’s investigation further emphasized that need.

Sachs said that retailers should have greater scrutiny, also. The Post found six of the top 10 prolific winners were store clerks or owners.

Store clerks and employees can play the lottery without restriction. They can even play from behind the counter if the store allows it.

Some North American lotteries don’t permit clerks and owners to play at their own stores.

“They can’t be checking the tickets to see if anybody won. They can’t be playing,” Sachs said. “Your article, and previous articles, have shown that other states do it better.”

Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said that relationship creates a “perception issue.”

“You shouldn’t have the hand in the till. That’s extremely awkward,” he said.

The Post found that some lotteries place restrictions on its retailers. Ontario, one of the largest lotteries in North America, doesn’t allow clerks and owners to play at their own stores.

California asks winners if they own or work at a store that sells lottery tickets. Florida doesn’t.

But O’Connell did not announce any changes to the way store clerks and owners play or how they report their winnings.

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