Canada: the case of the unknowing millionaire

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TORONTO, Canada — As manhunts go, this one is out of the ordinary.

Police are combing a small area of southern Ontario, not far from Niagara Falls, searching for someone who has been a millionaire for years, but didn’t know it.

The case of the unknowing millionaire involves lottery ticket scandals that have been growing in Ontario for the last three years, and are spreading to other Canadian provinces.

The latest twist has police searching in and around two towns on Lake Ontario — Burlington and St. Catharines — for the true winner of a $12.5-million lottery prize seven years ago. Charged with fraudulently collecting the prize are three members of the same family, including two who worked in the convenience store where the duped winner brought the ticket to be validated.

Police say the scam went like this: Someone at the convenience store verified a Super 7 lottery ticket and didn’t tell the customer that he or she had won a free ticket. The free ticket ended up winning a $12.5-million prize. Months later, the store manager’s sister collected the prize.

The store manager, his sister and their 60-year-old father were charged Friday with fraud and money laundering. Their bank accounts have been frozen and possessions they acquired since collecting the prize — including a $2-million home, luxury cars and jewelry — have been seized.

The search is now on for the true winner.

Officials with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., a government-owned agency that runs Ontario’s lotteries and casinos, have named the St. Catharines store where the original ticket was bought and the Burlington store — 38 miles away — where it was validated. They’ve also said the original ticket could have been part of numbers regularly played by a group of people. They’ve withheld other evidence they’ll be using to test the claims of would-be millionaires.

Not surprisingly, police and the lottery agency have been swamped with callers swearing on the graves of their ancestors that they’re the missing millionaires. More than a few are spitting nails at the thought that they were cheated out of seven years of unimaginable ease.

What really makes this story troubling is that it’s far from an isolated incident.

The issue of convenience store workers defrauding lottery customers was given national prominence by an old man named Bob Edmonds. In 2001, when he was 77, a store clerk scammed him out of a $250,000 lottery win. He complained to the lottery agency, bombarded its officials with evidence of the numbers he plays regularly, but was stonewalled. He took the agency to court and agreed to an out-of-court settlement. In 2006, a documentary on CBC TV told Canadians of Edmonds’ David versus Goliath struggle. He died a year later.

In 2007, an investigation by Ontario’s government-appointed ombudsman concluded the lottery agency was paying out millions of dollars in winnings to dishonest retailers. The ombudsman, Andre Marin, called them “insider wins.”

In 2005 alone, he found there were 31 insider wins, three of which were over $1 million.

Marin concluded that the agency was turning a blind eye to obviously questionable winnings because it had too cozy a relationship with the retailers who sell $2.4 billion worth of its lottery tickets every year — money that ends up in the provincial government’s coffers.

“It is too close to its retailers,” Marin said. “It has lost sight of the fact that it is supposed to be the guardian of the trust of the public.”

“Without the trust that whoever has lady luck on their side will actually pocket the jackpot, confidence in our lottery is shattered,” he added.

The lottery agency, Marin said, was often dismissive of customers who complained they were scammed.

In 2008, a special police unit in Ontario investigated 477 insider and suspicious wins, and charged 14 people. Last year, 355 investigations of suspicious wins resulted in four people charged.

Also in 2009, after much public pressure and outrage, the lottery agency published an independent forensic audit of its books. The audit found that retailers, employees and their families took home $198 million in lottery wins during the previous 13 years — 3.4 percent of the total prizes claimed during that period.

The scandals recently forced the lottery agency to make changes. Customers must now sign tickets before handing them over to a store clerk for validation; machines that scan and validate tickets play loud music when winning numbers are found; and, clerks have been banned from buying tickets in their own stores.

But Ontario isn’t alone. In the province of New Brunswick, on the Atlantic coast, an internal report by the Atlantic Lottery Corp. found that retailers won 10 percent more often than statistically probable over a six-year period. In British Columbia, on the Pacific coast, the lottery agency there found retailers were winning six times more than the general population.

When you buy a lottery ticket in Canada, you’ve got much more working against you than the one-in-14-million odds.