Against All Odds

Some NC lottery retailers win bigger than their customers

How one store owner won the N.C. lottery 36 times

An Observer investigation uncovered dozens of N.C. lottery retailers or employees — the gatekeepers to potential fortunes — who beat improbable odds time and again to collect significant prizes at their own stores. Here's how unlikely that can be.
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An Observer investigation uncovered dozens of N.C. lottery retailers or employees — the gatekeepers to potential fortunes — who beat improbable odds time and again to collect significant prizes at their own stores. Here's how unlikely that can be.

In a convenience store north of Raleigh, the retailer selling lottery tickets has won more big prizes than any of his customers.

Amitkumar Pandya collected nearly $90,000 from 2009 through last year. He claimed 42 of the 99 winning tickets sold at his Franklinton store during that time, records show, mostly from scratch-off tickets.

What are the odds of that happening? If Pandya bought a ticket every day, he’d have a better chance of flipping a coin 142 times and getting heads each toss, a Virginia Tech statistician estimated.

In a brief interview, Pandya said he played by the rules and dismissed those skeptical of his wins. If you just use common sense, people will tell you, you have to play a lot” to win a lot, he said.

The lottery emphasizes that integrity is a top priority. And officials say that less than 2 percent of all winning tickets worth at least $600 — the minimum amount the IRS requires lotteries to report — are claimed by retailers or employees of the stores where tickets are sold.

But an Observer investigation uncovered dozens of North Carolina Education Lottery retailers or their employees — the gatekeepers to potential fortunes — who beat improbable odds time and again to collect significant prizes at their own stores.

At least two dozen retailers or employees claimed 10 or more big winning tickets since 2010, according to the newspaper’s analysis. Their combined winnings topped $2.2 million. None have been sanctioned by lottery officials.

Other retailers cashed in one of every four big winning tickets sold at their shops.

And a Rowan County retailer was the only person ever to twice win a $1 million prize.

Lottery Executive Director Alice Garland said her agency carefully monitors trends for irregularities. All of the prolific winners the Observer discovered are legitimate, she said.

Multiple wins could come from retailers or clerks who simply play a lot, Garland said.

Garland said it is paramount that the lottery, the nation’s 13th largest based on total sales, offers fair and honest games.

“Integrity goes to the very heart of what we do,” she said.

But North Carolina fails to take certain steps that could help crack down on cheating retailers at its 6,850 lottery outlets, the Observer found.

And when retailers repeatedly win, it can hurt the public’s perception of the games, said Bill Hertoghe, former head of security at the California Lottery.

“Your playing public is thinking they don’t have a fair chance at a prize,” he said.

Breaking the rules

Statisticians said the luck of some repeat winners flies in the face of common sense. More likely, experts said, retailers either stole the tickets or violated lottery policy by buying players’ winning tickets at a discount, then claiming them as their own.

Retailers or clerks have been caught stealing tickets from customers or from their own stores.

In other cases, when owners and clerks buy winning tickets at a discount, they can rob single parents and taxpayers of money. The buyers cash the tickets and the sellers — who may owe child support or back taxes — remain anonymous.

Since 2006 when the lottery began, North Carolina has disciplined about 30 retailers for various offenses, including buying players’ winning tickets or stealing tickets, records show. Punishment ranged from short suspensions to loss of lottery licenses.

Prior to being caught, those store owners cashed in 57 prizes for some $150,000, the Observer found. After they were penalized none of them won again, according to the Observer’s data through late 2015.

“You’d like to think they learned their lesson. Maybe the majority of them did,” Hertoghe said. “But I think some of them retooled and had someone else file their claims for them.” That’s what happened in California, he said.

Overcoming the odds

In pulling off his winning streak, Pandya beat odds as high as 1 in 916,364. Twice he bested odds of 1 in 60,000, and when the odds were 1 in 3,000, he collected 13 times.

“People are going to beat 1 in 3,000 odds,” said Ron Wasserstein, executive director of the American Statistical Association “They’re not going to beat them consistently, and they’re not going to beat them over a long period of time.”

Since 2009, Pandya averaged a win every other month.

Bobby Spivey, secretary of the North Carolina lottery’s retailer advisory council, said he’d be suspicious if one of the workers at his half dozen stores won multiple times. He said he couldn’t recall any of them even winning once over the past five years.

Pandya said he plays a lot but wouldn’t elaborate, saying only that he has a gambling problem. When asked if he ever bought winning tickets from a player, he said, “You are asking me some stupid question now, sir,” and ended the interview.

Pandya has not been accused of wrongdoing.

University of California, Berkeley, statistics professor Philip Stark is familiar with unusual winning patterns. He co-authored a peer-reviewed scientific paper on implausible lottery winners after helping the Palm Beach Post investigate the Florida Lottery.

Using a similar mathematical approach, Stark and graduate student Dylan Daniels developed a software program to analyze data provided by the Observer. They calculated that everyone in North Carolina would have to spend at least $1.08 million to have a 1 in 10 million chance that at least one person would win as often as Pandya.

Statistics can’t unequivocally say it’s impossible to be this lucky, Stark said, but it seems extremely implausible that he was the original buyer for all the tickets he cashed in.

Nevertheless, Pandya recently landed on the lottery website’s Winners’ Board. He claimed five scratch-off ticket prizes on June 6, worth $1,000 each, and beat odds of up to 1 in 6,000.

Other winning streaks

Other retailers or clerks also had unusual streaks:

Champakbhai Patel, who runs Danny’s Place in Rockwell, is the two-time winner of $1 million. He beat odds of 1 in 680,000 and 1 in 886,667 to claim his store’s prizes in 2013 and 2015. He collected nine additional wins for $9,000, records show.

Patel said he follows the rules and he attributed his big wins to luck. “I’m not a cheating person,” he said.

The lottery said it had no basis to deny his claims.

Lottery clerk Jayshriben Patel made 20 trips to claims centers between 2011 and 2013 to collect $254,200. All of her wins came at her husband’s Jay Mini Mart & Grill in Pollocksville in eastern North Carolina.

Jayshriben Patel, who is not related to Champakbhai, could not be reached for comment. A store manager said the Patels sold the business a couple years ago.

When asked how Patel’s customers should feel about a clerk winning so often, Garland, said, “I think it comes down to how much that retailer is playing or just luck. But one player’s luck doesn’t impact another player’s luck.”

Gary Marshall, who sells lottery tickets in his High Point store, won 31 times for $30,600 through late last year. Since 2010, Marshall has won more than 40 percent of his store’s big prizes.

Marshall said he does not consider his win total unusual. “I’m up and up,” he said.

Hitesh and Tejal Patel combined for 22 wins, mostly off tickets bought at their Save & Go shop in Monroe.

Their wins are nearly all from scratch-off games, including a $1 million prize in January and a $20,000 win last year, beating odds of up to 1 in 888,000.

The Patels have never been accused of wrongdoing by the lottery. “I’m not here to be lying to the people,” Hitesh Patel said.

Every morning before he opens the store, Patel lights a candle and incense, then prays at a small shrine to the Hindu god Krishna. His god knows when he needs money, Patel said, adding that he typically plays $2 to $5 a day.

“If you feel like you’re going to win, you’re really going to win,” he said. “Just believe in God. He will help you out. I tell Krishna I need help all the time.”

Like the others, the Patels have not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Testing temptation

Sometimes the North Carolina lottery tests temptation with undercover stings.

The agency partners with law enforcement, which uses undercover officers to present tickets designed to mimic a winner when scanned for their prize status. Nearly a dozen owners, workers or relatives were arrested following stings between 2009 and 2014.

That included Charlotte retailer Dipak Rajpuria. With a simple lie and sleight of hand, he tried swindling a customer in 2009.

Rajpuria scanned the bar codes on a trio of scratch-off tickets at the Xpress Shop on Sunset Road, including one worth $1,000. As he gave them back, he swapped out the winner for another ticket and told his customer she lost.

But Rajpuria didn’t know his customer was an agent with a hidden camera and fake ticket. A week later, his daughter tried to cash the ticket, records show, and Rajpuria was arrested.

He lost his lottery license, pleaded guilty to a felony and received 18 months supervised probation, according to court records.

Protecting players

In addition to stings, lottery security director Moe McKnight said the agency scrutinizes retailer wins, performs about 1,700 unannounced retailer audits annually and uses data analysis to flag suspicious trends. The lottery does not discuss specifics for security reasons.

The state also trains convenience store owners on fraud prevention and detection, operates a 24/7 security hotline and monitors complaints about retail locations, among other measures. Its security practices are audited every other year by an independent firm and has always gotten a clean review, the lottery said.

“When I talk to other lottery directors, what I find out is that we have some of the most stringent procedures in place of any lottery,” said Garland, the lottery chief.

The Observer asked NC Lottery leader Alice Garland if she was confident that every prize awarded of $600 or more was for a legitimate lottery winner. Garland praised the "arduous security" the agency has, and said the lottery aggressively pursues

Her performance goals include keeping administrative expenses low, increasing proceeds for education and increasing the number of retailers. She does not have incentives for busting fraudulent retailers. Garland, whose salary is $209,533, says that the goal of increasing retail locations does not conflict with cracking down on crooked ones.

“I am not ever going to sacrifice solid business practices to meet a goal, and I think that is shown in how we conduct ourselves,” she said. “If we have evidence of fraud, we take action. That’s all there is to it.”

Still, North Carolina lags other states in certain security practices. Some states run many more undercover stings per year. In Indiana it’s a crime for retailers, employees or family members to bet at their own stores.

A few states also make it a crime for anyone, including retailers, to resell winning tickets. Florida even puts cheating retailers on their website.

To Hertoghe, the California security expert, states like North Carolina fail to do enough to protect players and ferret out cheating retailers.

“If you keep your head in the sand,” he said, “then it’s not happening in your state.”

Observer researcher Maria David contributed

Adam Bell: 704-358-5696, @abell

How we did the series

As the 10-year anniversary of the N.C. Education Lottery approached, The Charlotte Observer started the most in-depth review of lottery winners ever conducted outside of the agency.

Observer reporters analyzed a spreadsheet of 189,000 claims of at least $600 from 2006 through late 2015. That’s the minimum amount the IRS requires lotteries to disclose.

Reporters investigated lottery winners who repeatedly beat high odds. These players made dozens of trips to lottery claims centers. Some of them were licensed retailers, who sell tickets and are entrusted to serve as gatekeepers to potential riches.

Reporters paid particular attention to winners of scratch-off games. Unlike draw games such as the Pick 4, where a player can place multiple bets on a single number, one scratch-off ticket can result in only one win.

The Observer reviewed retailer disciplinary records, interviewed more than 60 players, store owners, lottery officials, experts and others, and sent data to statisticians at several universities.

Gavin Off has been the Charlotte Observer’s data reporter since 2011. Previously, he worked as a data reporter at the Tulsa World and at Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C.