In 2014, an undercover agent handed a lottery ticket to a store owner, then waited to see what she’d do.
The ticket’s a loser, the owner said, lying to the agent. Later, the owner’s husband tried to cash it in, and the couple was arrested.
A press release on the arrest, with the owner’s name, store and its address was posted on the website of the lottery — the Florida Lottery. It routinely posts details about retailers who were disciplined or arrested.
In North Carolina, however, it’s much harder to tell who’s been caught swindling customers.
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Although state lottery officials say they have some of the country’s best security policies, there are a number of measures North Carolina could borrow from other states.
Here are five:
1. Don’t bet where you work
Indiana runs the nation’s only lottery that prohibits retailers, employees or family members from playing games at their own stores.
If they do, they could face misdemeanor charges. And since they can’t play, there’s little incentive for a clerk to try to steal a customer’s winning ticket, said Carrie Stroud, Hoosier Lottery spokeswoman.
“From our perspective, it means that the tickets are being sold rather than scammed by retailers,” she said. “(The players) feel like they have a better chance.”
Like the other lottery states and Washington, D.C., North Carolina allows its retailers and their employees to buy tickets where they work. Lottery officials here simply recommend that they not buy at their own stores.
But that could change.
Kim Griffin Jr., chair of the commission that oversees North Carolina’s lottery, asked a committee to look at whether retailers should be allowed to play at their own store. “It just makes logical sense to me that the merchants can buy all the tickets they want but shouldn’t buy them at their own store,” Griffin said.
The board expects to discuss the issue in December.
2. Increase stings
Undercover stings are a strong weapon to combat cheating retailers. But North Carolina doesn’t use them nearly as often as some other states.
From 2009-11 and 2013-14 North Carolina completed 451 stings, said Moe McKnight, the lottery’s director of security. That accounts for 6.6 percent of the current number of stores. Eleven clerks or owners — about 2.4 percent of the targets — were arrested for trying to rip off customers.
McKnight called stings resource-intensive operations that can last as long as nine months.
Last year, Iowa conducted stings at 16 percent of its sites and Colorado held operations at nearly 27 percent of its locations.
In fiscal year 2014-15, the South Carolina lottery checked on 10 percent of its 3,850 retail sites, spokeswoman Holli Armstrong said. In one case, a clerk was arrested after paying out $3 for a $1,000 ticket.
3. Add more self-scanning machines
It sounds simple. If store employees and owners sometimes steal winning tickets from customers, why doesn’t the lottery let players bypass them?
They can in 64 percent of North Carolina’s retail outlets. Some 3,851 locations have scanners for players to check their own tickets, and another 517 sites — typically supermarkets — offer vending machines with the ticket scanning feature for players to use.
A number of states, including Ohio, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Connecticut and South Dakota, have self-scanning machines in all retail locations. Others, such as Montana, Iowa and New York, offer them in 99 percent of their stores.
North Carolina is heading that way, said Alice Garland, the lottery’s executive director. By next spring, when a new 10-year gaming contract starts, every shop that sells tickets will have a way for customers to scan tickets themselves.
Why has it taken so long?
“Quite frankly, they’re expensive,” Garland said. Self-scanners cost about $1,000 each.
4. Make ticket reselling a crime
At least three states have made reselling winning lottery tickets — known as ticket discounting — a crime.
Lottery officials acknowledge that reselling tickets, sometimes to avoid child support and tax withholdings, can rob taxpayers and single parents of money owed. But it’s still legal in North Carolina.
State policy bars retailers and their employees from the practice but says nothing about players selling to other players.
In Indiana and Florida, retailers and players alike would face misdemeanor charges. In Iowa, discounting falls under a broader statute that covers fraudulent activity, lottery spokeswoman Mary Neubauer said.
5. Spotlight retailer discipline
In 2014, after the Palm Beach Post exposed massive potential fraud in the Florida Lottery, state officials began posting online the names of store owners and employees caught cheating customers.
Stores whose licenses have been terminated for bad conduct also are listed.
Such information isn’t readily available to North Carolina players. The Observer obtained misconduct information using the state Open Records Act.
North Carolina officials said they don’t see a need to replicate Florida’s website.
“If we investigate and we find a problem, we’re either going to suspend or terminate the retailer,” Garland said. “And if we suspend, we don’t put that on our web page. But any regular customer at the store knows the retailer has done something because they can’t buy a lottery ticket for some period of time. It’s crystal clear.”
In Statesville, Mukta Dhebaria’s lottery license at Beaver’s General Store was suspended for a month in April. Her son, Sunny, who works at the store, bought two winning tickets from players and tried to claim them as his own, lottery records show.
Mukta Dhebaria acknowledged the suspension. But in an interview, Sunny Dhebaria denied any wrongdoing or that the license had been suspended.
And a sign in the store read, “Process of switching accounts. Lottery will be back May 5. Sorry for the inconvenience.” Records show the store’s suspension ended May 5.