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Canada: the case of the unknowing millionaire

Police are searching for someone who has been a millionaire for years, but didn’t know it.

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.