Officials Sniffing Into How So Many People Win State Lotteries So Many Times

lottery tickets in pennsylvania

Nadine Vukovich has purchased more winning Pennsylvania Lottery scratchers than anyone in Pennsylvania. A PennLive investigation found the veterinarian scratched off $350,000 in winnings from 209 tickets over 12 years. Each winning ticket was worth $600 or more.

PennLive deemed Vukovich the “most prolific” lottery winner in Pennsylvania; she is not alone. Across America, close to 1,700 people claimed at least 50 prizes of $600 or more from 2010 to 2016.

Faced with astronomically high odds of winning even once, how could these people win so many times?

Phillip Stark, a statistician at the University of California at Berkeley, told PennLive that Vukovich and everyone else in Pennsylvania would have to spend a minimum of $7.8 million if each of them would have even a 1-in-10-million chance of winning as often as she did.

As a result, he said Vukovich’s winning streak is “implausible.”

Gary Miller, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Lottery, said it was unfair to draw any conclusions about the games’ most frequent winners just because they were winning.

"You cannot make any assumptions about frequent winners without knowing how often they play," said Miller. "And the Lottery has no legal or business reason to track spending or frequency of play by individuals."

However, Susan Woods, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s Office, told PennLive the Auditor General’s office would be “reaching out to the Attorney General’s Office to discuss what might be the next best steps to ensure the integrity of Pennsylvania’s lottery.”

As unusual or “implausible” as Vukovich’s lottery winning streak might seem, it pales compared to the nation’s top lottery winner — 79-year-old Clarence Jones of Lynn, Mass. One day alone, in December 2016, he turned in 20 winning scratch-off tickets worth a total of $21,000.

Over the past six years, Jones has cashed in more than 7,300 winning lottery tickets with a total of $10.8 million.

Michael Sweeney, executive director of the Massachusetts Lottery, told PennLive his people are going to begin investigating the state’s most frequent winners. He also raised the possibility that frequent winners might be barred, temporarily, from claiming any more prizes.

"We are confident that the ongoing and multi-layered approach that we have undertaken will result in a significantly different status come October of next year," Sweeney said.

Ohio’s lottery king is Rickey Meng, a retired 63-year-old living off his disability checks and, for a time, his lottery winnings. Over seven years, Meng cashed in 342 tickets and walked home with $956,717 in winnings.

How’d he do it?

“I would see a number on a license plate or an address, and it would just jump out at me,'' Meng told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

"I made a lot of money, but I spent a lot, too,'' Meng said. "People don't realize that. I didn't win every time I walked into a store.’'

Still, Ronald Wasserstein, the executive director of the American Statistical Association, told the Plain Dealer that, as a statistician, he found Meng’s winning record to be “implausible.”

Statistically speaking, Wasserstein said to win 342 times, Meng would have had to buy more than 1.7 million tickets at the cost of $11.7 million.

"It's not surprising that individuals win more than once, that they can win multiple times,'' Wasserstein said. "But the chances of winning often, of more than $500 and up, are very, very small.’’

Sometimes the biggest winners are crooks. In Ontario, Canada, investigators found store clerks or owners stealing winning tickets from people claiming prizes – usually the elderly – and keeping the money.

There’s a practice known as “micro-scratching,” where a store clerk or owner scratches just a tiny bit of an unsold ticket to see if it’s a winner.

Some states have caught criminals buying winning tickets from players and then cashing them in for themselves. The “Black Mafia Family” in Detroit purchased more than $1 million in winning Michigan lottery tickets, efficiently laundering drug profits.

The PennLive investigation found that 10 of the nation’s 45 state lotteries – Kansas, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Connecticut, California, Idaho, Minnesota, and Washington –  don’t have a system to monitor or investigate frequent winners.

Even in the states where winners are monitored, lottery officials are “doing a weak job” and “fail to pursue penalties or ask tough questions about suspicious winning patterns,” the report noted.

"I don't know how many times they need to be told there's a problem there," said Bill Hertoghe, a former security director of the California Lottery. “But they just bury their heads because their revenues ($80 billion nationwide) are at an all-time high.”