Friday, December 22, 2006

Ombudman's probe into lottery wins welcome

VICTORIA - Solicitor General John Les and the B.C. Lottery Corp. have done a poor job of explaining why lottery retailers seem to be winning way more than their fair share of prizes.
It's not some little statistical blip. According to records obtained by the Vancouver Sun, the people who own or operate lottery ticket and Keno sales outlets have won 4.4 per cent of the prizes worth more than $10,000 in the last six years.
There are just 21,000 people who sell the tickets. That's about 0.7 per cent of the total population.
Which means that the people selling the tickets or collecting the Keno forms are about six times as likely to win a big prize as the average British Columbian.
There are only a couple of possible explanations. The people who work in the 4,400 lottery outlets, in malls and stores and bars, are spending much more than the rest of us.
Or there might be fraud at the expense of legitimate gamblers.
The issue first arose in Ontario, where a CBC report uncovered a similar high number of wins for the people selling the lottery tickets. That raised concerns unscrupulous sellers were cheating customers, either by telling them that their tickets weren't winners and then claiming the prize or by "pinpricking" scratch tickets to identify winners.
Neither the B.C. Lottery Corp.  nor Les were reassuring.
The corporation speculated that people who worked in lottery kiosks are just big gamblers and win more as a result.
But it had no facts to support the theory. Ontario's lottery corporation, facing the same concerns, did research and found ticket sellers were twice as likely to gamble on scratchies - not enough to explain the big winnings. Les said he had asked the province's Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch "to confirm the integrity of the technology systems used for BCLC's lottery retail network" and was told everything was fine. That doesn't really address the concerns.
He also said that more changes to protect consumers will be announced soon.
And anyway, the lottery corporation said, security staff have only confirmed four such scams in the last two years, all based on customer complaints.
That could mean everything is fine. It could also mean that there's just no enforcement to detect problems.
That's a real fear. In the last three years the Liberals have continued to expand gambling in B.C., adding Internet betting, minicasinos in communities across the province and new games aimed at bar patrons. Gambling-related crime, unsurprisingly, spiked, up 36 per cent last year alone.
But in the same three-year period the budget for the Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch has been cut each year.
Gamblers have some protection. About half the lottery outlets have machines that let consumers check their own tickets. At every outlet, a display screen is supposed to show the customer the results when the operator scans a ticket.
But that's not enough, given the serious questions.
The lottery corporation doesn't even know what share of prizes under $10,000 are being won by retailers, for example, a critical information gap. It could ban retailers from participating, or at least require them to gamble at another outlet. It could step up enforcement and spot checks.
Fortunately, B.C.'s Ombudsman has decided to investigate. Kim Carter plans to look at the lottery corporation's efforts to monitor retailers' participation and enforce the rules.
Lottery tickets are a bad bet. Start spending $2 a draw on 6/49 tickets when you're 19, pocket the occasional win along the way, and the odds say that by 65 you'll be down $5,200.  Take the same money and invest it in a mutual fund that earns six-per-cent interest and you'll have a retirement fund of just over $50,000 when you hit 65.
But British Columbians are still spending almost $20 million a  week on lottery tickets, Keno and the rest.
They at least deserve better assurances that the games are straight.
Footnote: The people selling their tickets are claiming the biggest number of prizes from Keno. The B.C. Lottery Corp. suggests that because there are games every five minutes and the odds are good. But it's worrying that Keno is also played in bars by gamblers who have been drinking and are vulnerable to fraud.


Declan said...

I always thought it was sort of an open secret that many retailers had ways of keeping more winning tickets for themselves.

Good to see an investigation, anyway.

bunderwo said...

Your comment about retirement savings is really important. Government supported gambling creates addiction in our communities. Addictions mean people are spending their money on things that are not good for them. In BC today, when the cost of living is so high and the evergrowing gap between rich and poor is becoming more evident all the time, Government should not be supporting gambling! Realisitically though, all governments are addicted to gambling revenue and I don't see this changing.

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