Lottery to place limits on odds-defying prize claimants

Idea is to clamp-down on possible fraud

BOSTON (State House News Service) – They appear to be among the luckiest Massachusetts Lottery players, frequently claiming large prizes and collecting tens of thousands of dollars a year, but Lottery officials suspect some of them could be involved in something more nefarious and are launching a new effort to prevent it.

The Massachusetts Lottery frequently compiles a list of people who have claimed at least 20 prize payments worth a total of $20,000 in a year — a win rate that catches the attention of Lottery officials — and shares those names with law enforcement and state and federal tax collectors.

In some cases, officials said, these claimants may be presenting winning tickets that belong to another person who cannot or does not want to claim it for any number of reasons. The true winner could be attempting to evade past-due child support payments, taxes or other debts which the Lottery is legally obligated to help collect, officials said, or the claims may be part of a money laundering scheme.

Beginning this fall, the Lottery will step up efforts to prevent any of those scenarios with a new policy that its executive director said he expects to cause a “major disruption” among professional ticket cashers.

Under the policy, if an individual claims six or more Lottery prizes of $1,000 or more during the course of any consecutive 12-month period, the Lottery executive director will have the authority to suspend that individual’s ability to claim additional prizes for a certain period of time, Executive Director Michael Sweeney said Wednesday.

Upon the first violation, the person will be barred from claiming additional prizes for 30 days. A second violation would lead to a 180-day ban on claiming additional prizes, and subsequent violations will carry 365-day freezes on new prizes, Sweeney said. Lottery players will have the right to an appeals hearing, which would be conducted by Lottery officials. The policy is set to take effect Oct. 1.

“We are going to be more proactive in this area … to make sure things are on the up and up,” Sweeney said. “This is the Lottery increasing our due diligence in protecting the games and the consumers.”

Sweeney said the winning ways of some of the people on the so-called 20/20 list “strain credulity” and that a number of people show up on the list each time the Lottery compiles it.

The odds of winning a $1,000 prize on one of the Lottery’s newest $10 scratch tickets are roughly 1 in 2,087, making the odds of winning six such prizes 1 in 12,522. At $10 per ticket, the odds suggest a lottery player would have to spend about $125,220 on tickets to claim a total of $6,000 in prizes.

A version of the 20/20 list provided by the Lottery includes players who have cashed, on average, as many as four $1,000 Lottery prizes every day so far in 2017. Among them is Ali Jaafar of Watertown, who so far in 2017 has claimed 936 prizes from the Mass. Lottery — an average of more than four wins per day — totaling $1,322,482.50. On July 31 alone, the Lottery records show, Jaafar claimed 18 prizes — 15 from instant tickets and three from Keno — worth just under $20,000.

The list also includes Frank Obey of Lynn, whose 609 winning tickets so far in 2017 have netted him a total of $1,105,456. And it includes Clarance Jones of Lynn, whose winning streak first caught the attention of the Lottery and state auditors almost two decades ago.

In 1998, Jones cashed in 319 tickets worth $412,482 and was used as an example of the Lottery failing to exercise “due diligence” by requiring proper ID or checking on repeat “winners” in an audit released by then-Auditor Joe DeNucci in 1999. So far in 2017, Jones has claimed $486,422.50 from 401 winning Lottery products.

“There’s a lot wrong,” deputy auditor Robert Powilatis said in 1999, the News Service reported. “There’s illegal activity, criminal, civil, whatever.”

A follow-up audit conducted by DeNucci’s office in 2007-08 found the practice “is ongoing and has become even more widespread.”

In 2013, then-Treasurer Steve Grossman filed a bill (H 25) that would have allowed the Lottery to withhold prizes from individuals who the Department of Revenue determined to be presenting “Lottery ticket(s) for the payment of prize(s) on the behalf of another person or persons with the intent to allow any person or entity to evade the payment of a tax obligation or other legal obligation to either to the Commonwealth or the government of the United States.”

That bill was reported favorably from the Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure in 2014 but then never emerged from the House Committee on Ways and Means.

Sweeney said the Lottery will continue to work aggressively with law enforcement and other agencies to crack down on the “underlying current of potentially illegal activity” but hopes its new policy will serve as a deterrent itself.

The Lottery does not limit how frequently a person can play or win. Prizes greater than $600 must be claimed at the Lottery headquarters in Braintree or at one of the five other Lottery regional offices. To claim a prize greater than $600, a winner must present a valid photo identification and social security number.

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