In the last three years, one North Carolina man has won the lottery 144 times, netting nearly $300,000.
Is he the luckiest man in North Carolina? Not by a long shot. In the last three years, dozens of people have won 40 times or more.
Playing the lottery is essentially a voluntary tax — players play to win, but the odds favor the state. In all, $5 billion lost by players has gone to fund the state’s education system.
Haley Anderson’s case is less extreme, but it still defies the odds. Anderson, a self-described struggling college student, occasionally buys scratch off lottery tickets from her neighborhood gas station.
She “never won anything,” she said. Then, in the span of a week, she won $1,000 not once, but twice.
What the numbers say
CBS North Carolina asked statistician Eric Laber to take a closer look at the numbers. Laber, an associate professor at North Carolina State University, reviewed three years of lottery data with the help of several graduate students.
Just like CBS North Carolina, he spotted the man who won 144 times in just under three years and a gas station in Gaston County reported another man with 68 winning tickets in the same span for $201,000.
An employee of a Franklinton gas station won $98,700 dollars with 51 tickets.
The odds of a person who bought 10,000 tickets winning 20 or more times are about one in 520 million, Laber said. Winning 25 times or more with 10,000 tickets is a one-in-4 trillion shot, he said.
The odds of winning more than that with 10,000 tickets get even longer.
“The number would be so large the computer was not able to compute it,” Laber said.
Laber says, statistically speaking, the number of winners should follow population — the more people live in a place, the more winners there should be.
And, in North Carolina, an analysis of the breakdown of winners by county generally follows that pattern. But there are some interesting anomalies.
Halifax and Nash counties stand out as areas with lots of winners but not particularly many people.
Are these areas lottery hot spots, or is something else skewing the numbers?
“So that is very unlikely, if people are all playing uniformly,” Laber said. “So somebody up there is buying a lot of tickets, or they are extremely lucky or there is something else happening.”
The CBS North Carolina Investigative team found the person believed to have won seventy times in three years. He would not talk on camera, but threatened to call the police.
But, in North Carolina, a person doesn’t have to play the lottery themselves to reap winnings. State law allows lottery winners to sell their ticket.
A recent search of Craigslist turned up a $1,000 dollar winning scratch off ticket for sale. The owner of the ticket, according to the ad, was willing to take $750. Why? The seller had student loan debt.
People with tickets that hit big have to produce their social security numbers to claim their prizes. The numbers are then run against a database of debtors, officials said. When an identity matches, the winnings go toward the debts. Anything left over goes to the winner.
All winners of $600 or more must fill out the forms, said Kathleen Jacob of The North Carolina Education Lottery.
Selling tickets — and thereby avoiding the debt check — is legal. But are enough winning tickets being sold on the open market to skew the odds in certain areas?
Mathematically, Laber said, the weird numbers have to come from one of three things.
“You can get really, really lucky. … The odds of getting really lucky … while buying a small number of tickets … is vanishingly small,” he said. “You could buy a lot of tickets. You could buy millions of tickets and your chances of winning a hundred times are pretty good. Or, you could find a way to acquire the tickets some other way.”
A person could acquire winners by purchasing them from players who don’t want to come forward themselves. But there’s also the possibility of some sort of underhanded trick.
The lottery recommends stores put policies in place barring store employees and owners from playing the lottery on the clock, to avoid the chance of anyone self-dealing.
And most retailers do forbid store employees from playing the lottery on the clock. Some even require employees go elsewhere to buy tickets, said Jacob.
That recommendation isn’t law, but the North Carolina Education Lottery Commission discussed proposed legislation in March 2017 that would have put limits on buying and cashing in lottery tickets at work.
CBS North Carolina also asked the North Carolina Lottery to supply a list of retailers that have been investigated or lost their licenses for lottery-related problems. So far they have not provided the list.
Minutes from the same March 2017 Lottery Commission meeting shows that officials denied a request to reinstate a food mart’s lottery retailer license and contract. No other details of the case have been published.
The Bottom Line
“If (winners) have a connection to a retailer, that is one of the first things that will trigger and investigation,” Jacob said. “We look specifically if you own a store, if you work at a store that sells lottery tickets of if you are related to an owner.”
If you’re playing to win, good luck; the odds are not in your favor.
If you do win, Laber said, that’s the time to stop.
“In fact, the more you play, the more the law of averages is going to work against you as a player,” he said. “So, if you buy one ticket and win, you are ahead. You have a big return on your one dollar investment. But the more you play, the more those odds work against you, in a sense. In the long run, it is going to settle down, and the real odds are you can’t win in the long run.”