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State

Games not up to scratch: Illinois sells lottery tickets even after top prizes have been won

A customer pays for scratch-off lottery tickets from a vending machine in Harwood in 2017. Illinois’ practice of keeping some scratch-off games on the market indefinitely after top prizes have been awarded stands in contrast to states like South Carolina and Texas, where lotteries are required to pull a game within a specific time frame once the last remaining top prize has been claimed.
A customer pays for scratch-off lottery tickets from a vending machine in Harwood in 2017. Illinois’ practice of keeping some scratch-off games on the market indefinitely after top prizes have been awarded stands in contrast to states like South Carolina and Texas, where lotteries are required to pull a game within a specific time frame once the last remaining top prize has been claimed.

At $30 a ticket, the Illinois Lottery’s World Class Millions instant game was not only one of its priciest offerings – it was also potentially one of the most lucrative for players.

“WIN UP TO $15,000,000! THE HIGHEST INSTANT PAYOUT IN ILLINOIS LOTTERY HISTORY,” shouted a banner across the magenta and silver ticket.

But for the last 5 weeks the game was on sale this year, none of the three $15 million prizes remained. Yet players purchased an estimated 26,000 tickets during that time, spending about $793,000.

Illinois’ practice of keeping some scratch-off games on the market indefinitely after top prizes have been awarded stands in contrast to states like South Carolina and Texas, whose lotteries are required to pull a game within a specific time frame once the last remaining top prize has been claimed.

A Tribune investigation found that, since the end of October, World Class Millions was just one of 15 instant games the Illinois Lottery continued to sell for weeks or months after there were no more top prizes to win. One game, the $2 Cash Wheel game, was still on the market as of Tuesday even though its last top prize was awarded in January.

From mid-November to mid-March, the lottery sold more than 3 million instant game tickets – costing players more than $20 million – for games that no longer had any top prize available, according to the Tribune’s analysis of lottery records. And at one point in early March, nearly 1 in 6 games on sale no longer had a top prize available.

Continuing to allow instant game sales after top prizes are awarded has long been a lottery policy – one that officials note is printed on the backs of tickets.

But there’s virtually no way players can see the fine print until after they’ve purchased a ticket. It is not displayed online, or at the thousands of stores where tickets are sold, or via lottery vending machines.

Players do have the option of visiting the lottery’s website to find out whether a game still has a top prize available. But the Tribune found the lists aren’t updated at regular intervals – sometimes they’re not updated for up to 2 weeks.

Critics said the lack of easy access to information about top-prize availability, coupled with the lottery’s sales policies, mean players can be easily misled about their chances.

“If they did operate with integrity, and tell people that these top prizes might not be available, people wouldn’t buy these tickets,” said Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling, an organization that opposes state-sponsored gambling, including casinos and lotteries.

“Normally, if this was any other product, this would be the kind of consumer protection concern that the state attorney general would be investigating,” said Mark Gottlieb, executive director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute at Northeastern University School of Law in Massachusetts.

“But because it’s the state lottery, they’re exempt from just about all consumer protections that Illinois law would provide a consumer for any other industry,” Gottlieb said.

“I think for the small minority of motivated, strategic players who are trying to give themselves the best chances of winning, that timely information is (not) available to them, which strikes one as being an inherently unfair advantage for the purpose of selling what are dud tickets,” Gottlieb said.

According to the lottery’s procedures, officials “may” consider several factors in deciding to close a game, including when all top prizes are claimed. However, the policy does not set forth a specific time frame for removing games from the market, nor does it require games to be discontinued after all top prizes have been awarded.

Enough notice for players?

Nearly every week, the lottery publishes a list on its website of all the games currently on the market, along with how many prizes remain unclaimed for each game.

A Tribune review of those records showed that in November, only one game was still on the market without a top prize available: the $2 game Here Lies Buried Riches, which offered four top prizes of $20,000.

That game was eventually pulled from the market in early January, but by the end of that month, eight more games were still on sale without any unclaimed top prizes, ranging in price from $2 to the $30 World Class Millions game touting top prizes of $15 million.

By the time the lottery issued its March 6 instant prize list, 10 of the 63 games on sale no longer had a top prize available.

Gottlieb said players should reasonably expect the lottery to disclose to them, at the point of purchase, the actual number of top prizes remaining and the mere fact that tickets will be sold after top prizes are no longer available.

“It’s important information for people who are spending billions of dollars a years on instant game tickets,” he said.

Tickets for most of the games without any top prizes were no longer being distributed, though retailers were still free to sell them to customers. Illinois Lottery policy allows retailers to sell through existing ticket stock even if distribution has ended.

But tickets for two games analyzed by the Tribune were still being distributed to store shelves and kiosks for weeks or months after the last top prize was claimed.

On Jan. 29, the lottery first reported that its $20 instant game Fabulous Fortune no longer had any of its four $4 million top prizes available. Nonetheless, the most recent unclaimed prize list showed the lottery was still distributing tickets for that game – which touts “$4,000,000 Top Prizes!” in bold letters on the ticket face – to retailers more than 2½ months after the top prizes have been claimed.

“Fabulous Fortune still has a prize of $1,000,000 unclaimed,” lottery spokesman Jason Schaumburg said in a written response to questions. “Having the last top prize claimed does not automatically result in ending a game’s distribution or sales.”

During the weeks the instant games were on sale without grand prizes, they represented a significant portion of the total sales of the games. In fact, games without top prizes have brought in an estimated $20.7 million in sales from mid-November to mid-March.

When asked whether lottery officials disputed the figures, Schaumburg said the agency had “no comment” about the Tribune’s analysis.

That games with no top prizes left made up a significant portion of overall tickets sold during that time frame amplifies “the point that the state of Illinois probably should be more responsible than your average for-profit business in the way it administers the lottery, and that does not seem to be the case,” Gottlieb said.

In September, the state named a new private manager to run the lottery, Camelot Illinois, which took over on Jan. 2 from Northstar Lottery Group, a company that itself faced questions over its handling of the state lottery.

In 2016, the Tribune reported that under Northstar, the lottery – looking to boost excitement and sales for scratch-offs – advertised dramatically larger grand prizes. But the lottery printed far more tickets than it did previously. Sales increased, but not enough to get through massive ticket pools. So as sales waned, games were pulled off shelves early – sometimes before all, or even any, life-changing grand prizes were awarded.

Camelot is still in the process of taking full control, which will happen on July 1.

Lottery officials said that, as they make that transition, they have not altered the policy for how they end games.

Camelot officials said the company has had little involvement in decisions on when to end games. But once it takes over day-to-day control, its goal is to be “as transparent as possible in the way we communicate the status of games and prizes to our players.”

Though Camelot did not say it would set a specific time frame for ending all games after top prizes are awarded, other states do.

In South Carolina, officials begin the process of ending a game when there is only one top prize remaining. Once the last grand prize is claimed, retailers are prohibited within 1 day from selling any more tickets for that game.

“It’s been our policy for a very long time,” South Carolina Education Lottery spokeswoman Holli Armstrong said. “Players play for a top prize. They play for the small prizes too, but they play for the top prizes.”

Bernal, of Stop Predatory Gambling, said of South Carolina’s policy: “Without question it’s a better approach.”

“Even if, in the end, people are going to lose money to these games,” he said, “it makes it less predatory.”

– Tribune reporter Joe Mahr contributed to this story.

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©2018 the Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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