Are Lotteries Rigged?
Lotteries are advertised as easy ways to win loads of money. However, the odds are always stacked against the player, with especially low odds of winning the big, hundreds of millions jackpot.
So, are lotteries rigged? No, lotteries are not rigged. While your chances of winning are low, there should be no foul play by either the lottery corporation or the government. Additionally, the odds of someone winning a prize are clearly noted in the rules of any lottery game.
Read on to learn about a time when the lottery was rigged (and the culprit was caught), how lottery numbers are chosen, and the security measures in place to ensure a fair and random drawing. This article will also outline the chances of winning a major lottery, as well as a short overview of scratch lottery tickets and how a couple of people have tried to decipher patterns in those. Finally, a few fake conspiracy theories about lotteries are thrown in, just for fun.
How Are Lottery Numbers Chosen?
Lottery numbers are chosen by random-number generators.
For example, the Multi-State Lottery Corporation uses a Geiger Counter, used to measure radiation in the air. The reading is then translated into code, which is split into two-digit numbers and put as the winning numbers.
For Powerball, as well as a few other large number-based lotteries, the picker uses a physical system involving plastic balls. The balls, labeled with black ink with numbers 1-69, are in one container, and red balls numbered 1-26 are in another. Air is pumped into the containers, which mixes up the balls. Then a platform rises from the bottom, holding one ball from the black-labeled container.
This is repeated five times, and then a red ball is drawn in the same way.
This system of drawing balls is assumed to be random unless you count the small probability that the different ink patterns denoting numbers create heavier and lighter balls. However, most agree that the difference in weight would be statistically unimportant, and the resulting ticket numbers seem to not be affected in practice.
Another question arises with the “Quick Pick” system, in which players allow a machine to spit out a combination of numbers for them to play, rather than choosing their own. Since a machine does this, it must be programmed by humans. The ability for people to hack code is there, and while possible, would be illegal. Just under 70% of tickets sold are Quick Pick Tickets.
Additionally, with the millions of tickets sold by Quick Pick, it seems to be just as likely to win as with people who pick their own number combinations.
Can Lotteries Be Rigged?
People in power, who have access to the coding and machines that pick winning numbers can, in fact, rig a lottery. One of the most famous cases was Eddie Tipton, who rigged the Hot Lotto.
According to a New York Times article on the subject, Tipton worked at the cooperation that organized the Hot Lotto, which was started in 2002, and available in 14 states and Washington DC.
Tipton, who was described by coworkers and friends as an all-around nice guy, was able to rig a few lotteries in order to win jackpots for either himself or his friends and family. He had access to many of the departments in the cooperation, from security to coding. By writing a small code that narrowed the possible combination of numbers to a few hundred, he was able to drastically lower the odds for those who knew the possible combinations.
By doing this, he won millions of dollars illegally. He either bought the tickets himself (only smaller prizes), and passed them off to loved ones, or simply gave the combinations to friends or family to try themselves.
He was discovered when his best friend went through incredible lengths in order to try and claim a $16.5 million dollar jackpot anonymously, which is illegal in Iowa. Since his friend knew that he won a rigged lottery, he was considering withdrawing his win in order to stay unknown, which caused alarm bells to go off in local white-collar crime investigators’ offices. Who would trade anonymity for such a huge amount of money?
Tipton was eventually caught, made to confess, and sentenced to ten years in a low-security prison. While originally Tipton was only caught for one illegal ticket, it was quickly found that a pattern of his friends and family winning was long-winding. He never truly saw his actions as blatantly illegal, only as a nice thing to do for struggling friends and family.
While this story is horrifying for many hopeful lottery players, rest assured that it’s a rare case. People who attempt to rig lotteries get caught quickly, as multiple winners from one family or groups of people trigger investigations. Trying to fool an organization with many security systems is often a lost cause for the people who try.
So while it is possible for someone to rig a lottery, it’s very unlikely, and definitely not common practice. Numbers drawn for winning tickets of big lotteries should certainly be random, and most often, they are.
What Are the Chances of Winning?
The reason why one might think lotteries are rigged might have something to do with the incredibly low odds of winning the lottery. Unlike cards at a casino or an electronic slot machine, lottery games aren’t won by skill or pre-determined by a casino. Instead, it’s true that each lottery ticket has an equal chance of being the winning one as the next (unless, of course, the game is illegally tampered with).
Powerball: The odds of winning the multi-million dollar jackpot is 1 in 292,000,000. Statistically, that’s almost zero.
Obviously, your chances do increase the more tickets you purchase, but that also means more money out of your pocket without a promise to earn it back. However, the chances of winning any prize are 1 in 24.8, meaning having at least one number match. The payouts of prizes (not the jackpot) go from $4 to $1 million for five out of five numbers plus a matching “Powerball” number, which is just a sixth number with fewer options to choose from (1-26).
Mega Millions: To win Mega Millions would be to beat the odds even more than if you won Powerball. The chances of winning lie around 1 in 302,500,000- meaning you have a better chance of getting struck by lightning or even having quadruplets than walking away with hundreds of millions from Mega Millions.
In the case of Mega Millions, you have to match five numbers plus the “Mega” number, but the range of numbers is 1-70, while Powerball’s range is 1-69. Mega Millions does offer more prizes, but the payout starts at just $2 (the price of one ticket) and goes up to one million (not counting the jackpot).
So while the national lottery games may feel “rigged,” due to the low chances of winning money (not even the jackpot, just any prize), it is, in fact, random. Just know your odds before going in, and you may end up less dissatisfied with the inevitable losses.
The most instantly gratifying (or devastating, depending on if you win or lose) types of lotteries are in the form of scratch-off tickets. Rather than picking numbers and waiting for them to be drawn, you can simply pay a buck for a paper card. To play, you take a coin and scratch off a layer of paint to reveal images underneath. If some match, you win. The more that match, the more you win.
This type of lottery is less random because companies who make scratch-offs need to ensure there is only a limited number of winners in order for them to make a profit. So tickets are designed to be winners or not be winners, and it’s only luck that determines which one it is.
However, some claim to have “hacked” the code of scratch-offs, simply by collecting enough data on which cards win and lose. In an Atlantic article, the author describes being a store cashier, who would watch when enough people’s cards were losers in a row, and take the chance to buy the next few. He determined about a 10% success rate and was able to catch the winner in the pack a couple of times.
The typical “winning” card gives the buyer a few bucks- certainly not the millions that can be won by a national number-drawing lottery, but not bad.
There are, however, more statistical ways of finding scratch-off winners. A statistician found that certain patterns could be deduced on tic-tac-toe style tickets, and found a high success rate. Instead of getting rich, however, he reported his findings to the company that made the tickets. To convince the company that he knew what he was talking about, he correctly predicted 19/20 unscratched tickets and sent them by mail.
The same man was able to crack a few other number-based scratch lottery games, reporting his findings to the company each time. As it turns out, many such algorithms are able to be “solved,” meaning that the manufacturers have to stay one step ahead of anyone who may be trying to “rig” a game in their favor.
Lottery Conspiracy Theories
Despite assurances from big lotteries that all is fair and legitimate when running national games like Powerball and Mega Millions, theories about where the money really goes and who organizes the lottery run amuck on conspiracy websites. Though lotteries are not rigged, plenty of people continue to believe in illegitimate forces behind the system.
Here are a couple of the most common, and some of the most outrageous:
The Powerball Lottery is run by the Mafia: The site entitled “The Illuminati Conspiracy Blog” claims that Powerball is run by the “Mob,” who is making billions off of common people’s investments in the lottery. While they don’t have much (read: any) proof behind this theory, the bluster and ragged logic can be entertaining to follow.
The government is purposefully jacking up the jackpot by not declaring a winner: With huge jackpots for lotteries, it is true that governments can get a bigger cut by taxing the lot. However, there’s no legitimate way they can ensure that the numbers they pick won’t match anyone’s ticket, as many people fill out the numbers themselves.
Nevertheless, the theory that the government has a heavy hand in delaying winners of lotteries is one of the most popular Powerball conspiracy theories on the internet, especially if you search for the two terms “Powerball” and “Conspiracy.”
The winners are actors: Another popular idea, tied to the “governments are fraudulent” idea, is that winners of Powerball and Mega Millions are actors, paid by the government to keep a fake lottery going. Those who push this theory believe that ticket money goes directly to the government, and anyone who “wins” is only acting.
However, this myth runs into a problem when you realize that the numbers being called do, in fact, have to eventually end up being written on someone’s ticket. Additionally, the government does still earn profit from lotteries, even with a real winner taking home a cash prize.
Location conspiracy: Another Twitter conspiracy favorite is that winning tickets are only sold in certain parts of the country- with Indiana, Missouri, and Minnesota as the top states for Powerball winners. However, the variance of buyers in each location can also determine the highest win rate. The more tickets bought, the better the chance of walking away with the jackpot.
So, are the theories true? The answer is pretty much, no. There are security measures put in place during high-stake lottery drawings, with multiple witnesses and typically even an enforcement officer watching over the proceedings. Additionally, any glimmer of foul play would be thoroughly investigated, just as it was in the Hotto Lotto scandal.
Still not convinced? There’s an easy solution: just don’t play! The only way you would be getting scammed is if you willingly paid for a ticket.
With billions of dollars circulating in the lottery systems across the United States, there has to be a level of security to both ensure that no foul play is going on, as well as to keep players safe. How does this happen?
To start, most states have a security system for their specific lottery system. As outlined in the division of security of the Florida Lottery, these departments investigate claims of fraud, field complaints, and prepare and take preventative measures in order to stay one step ahead of any criminal activities.
They also typically write a list of guidelines so players can keep themselves and their money safe.
They advise never to answer a call or email offering to sell someone a winning ticket or even to buy a ticket from someone other than an authorized vendor. Additionally, they warn that anyone promising a prize cannot be trusted, as there is no guarantee in the official lottery that you will win anything. Lastly, they mention that a lottery official will never call someone, so to avoid those scams.
To make sure all is fair and secure, the Mega Millions website details the carefully-thought-out security measures that go into each drawing.
- With multiple sets of balls and machines, a random pair is chosen each time.
- Outside consultants make sure that the chosen machine is working correctly.
- The chosen machine is put through tests before the drawing to make sure it is truly random.
- After the drawing, more tests are conducted to double-check the validity of the machine’s results.
- Auditors from an independent firm help with these tests, as well as lottery officials.
- The entire testing and drawing process is videoed, as proof.
The officials claim that the process takes about three hours, even while the actual choosing of the balls only takes about a minute. All of the hubbubs are specifically to preserve the integrity of the game.
Powerball has a very similar method, and any large lottery corporation must carefully document and confirm that their random methods are secure and that no foul play is at large.
Lotteries are commonplace throughout the United States, and millions of people buy tickets each year. Because of the abundance of players, the odds of winning a prize, especially the jackpot, are very low- less than one in a million, typically.
However, the lottery is not rigged or set up in any way. One ticket has just as good a chance of winning as another ticket. While there are some conspiracy theories out there about who might be controlling lotteries behind the scenes, rest assured that all these myths are false. (There are some strategies though, that can increase your odds.)
Lastly, there have been a couple of notorious instances of lottery-rigging- however, these people are typically caught quickly. Lotteries have plenty of security systems, from investigators of crime to careful tests to ensure randomness, in order to maintain safety.Let us say you found old lottery tickets while you were cleaning out your kitchen or going through that stack of papers that have been needing to be organized for months. An old lottery ticket seems useless, right? Is there anything to do with it besides throwing it away?
It’s time to get rid of the lottery
States should not rely on a scam to fund much-needed services.
One of my earliest memories is of my mother buying a lottery ticket. We’re at a supermarket counter in rural California, she holds a $5 bill between two long fingernails. “Five SuperLotto Quick Picks,” she says to the cashier. He gives her a ticket the color of an orange creamsicle. She folds it into her wallet, between receipts and the bills.
When I was young, my mother was always talking about the “lotto.” Around the kitchen table, she’d tell me and my older brother what she’d do with the millions: buy a large farm with chickens, fly us to Mexico, solar-panel the roof.
One afternoon in first grade my mother surprised me by picking me up early from school. I had never left school early before, and I knew something big must have happened. There was only one possibility in my mind — that we’d won the lottery. I skipped down the linoleum-floored hallway to the office where she was signing the paperwork to take me home. In the car I asked her if it was really true: Had we won? No, my mother said. Dad and I are getting a divorce.
I imagine that my mother probably thought about winning the lottery so much because she was a stay-at-home mom during my early childhood. She’d been thinking about going back to college to get her teaching credential, and she’d need money. Or maybe she played because she sensed the imminence of divorce. At a pool party, a friend had told her that someone he knew had won enough to move to Hawaii. I picture my mother outstretched on a lawn chair, looking over her dark sunglasses, listening. “That’s when I really started playing,” she told me during my last visit home. “That kind of made it real. Like a real possibility.”
Despite the one-in-292-million odds of winning the multi-state Powerball jackpot (you have a greater chance of dying from a falling coconut, which is one in 250 million), Americans spent $71.8 billion on lottery tickets in 2017. The bulk of this revenue was generated by the largest consumers of lottery tickets, who also happen to be the poorest Americans. According to a 2004 study conducted by Cornell University professor Garrick Blalock, the lottery is most aggressively advertised in impoverished communities, particularly minority and rural white neighborhoods. The predation of the lottery on the financially insecure leads to what Blalock calls the desperation hypothesis: those in the direst of financial circumstances turn to the lottery as “a hail-mary strategy.” It is a source of hope for those in despair, for those who dream of escaping their social class.
75 percent of lottery players believe that they will win and 71 percent of players said that if they did win, they would use the money to pay off their debt.
The Cornell study also found that people who made less than $30,000 a year were more likely to play the lottery for money (as opposed to those who play purely for entertainment), meaning that poor lottery players play as a legitimate strategy for financial stability. A 2019 survey conducted by a customer intelligence firm Vision Critical found that 75 percent of lottery players believe that they will win and 71 percent of players said that if they did win, they would use the money to pay off their debt. A 2006 survey found that one in five Americans believe that winning the lottery “represents the most practical way for them to accumulate several hundred thousand dollars.” This number jumps to one in three Americans for those with incomes below $25,000. Lottery players budget to account for lottery tickets in the hope that this investment will offer a reward in the form of savings or debt relief. This, in turn, only makes America’s poorest even poorer.
In 2018, advertising agency David&Goliath rebranded the California SuperLotto Plus with the new slogan: “May The Best Dream Win.” The minute-long TV advertisement, an homage to California and the dreamers it attracts, is layered with an ensemble of quickening violins and postcard shots of California geography. A woman driving a pickup truck with a three-legged dog in the passenger seat pulls into a stretch of farmland designated “Tripod Ranch,” where other three-legged dogs run through verdant grass. (It is assumed that her dream is to have a ranch for three-legged dogs.) “Something brought you here,” James van der Beek’s voice intones over a panorama of the California coastline, “something brought all of us here.” An attractive man, smiling, walks off of a movie set, the Pacific all cerulean. “Where no dream is too big, too small, or too out-there. So go ahead and dream.” A son takes his father, a former serviceman, out on a ride on his military motorcycle. “This is California. And if a dream is going to come true anywhere. it’s going to come true here.” May The Best Dream Win sprawls across the screen, followed by a sunny SuperLotto Plus ticket.
The message behind the commercial is nothing groundbreaking: winning the lottery can make dreams come true. Yet, what SuperLotto Plus set out to do was piggyback off California’s magnetism to amplify its residents’ sense of luck. The California Gold Rush was, in 1848, the catalyst for Western expansion. It offered gold by the pound, sparsely populated land, and for the poor, rapid financial gain. The desire for California’s statehood, a product of Manifest Destiny, was feverish: according to Harvard historian Frederick Merk, the unconquered West was considered, “a new earth for building a new heaven.” From the frontier of possibility and profitability would come salvation. The advertisement, then, deceives its viewers into believing that lottery players reserve a sense of agency granted by California lore: if you dream hard enough and big enough in California, you will win.
As a child, I believed that my mother deserved to win the lottery. Sometimes a Powerball winner would be interviewed by a TV news station about their luck. Their faces, smiling and shiny, would annoy me: They were not my mother.
I liked to imagine what she would look like if she won. I thought about her on the ranch with the chickens, riding on the back of a chestnut-colored horse. I thought about us taking the vacation to Mexico, eating rice and pulled pork off of a cream-colored plate on a hotel balcony. “One day,” she’d say whenever I asked her for something that we couldn’t afford. “When we win the lotto.”
The California lottery functions, of course, as another type of rigged capitalist competition, a game with a vanishingly small chance of reward that fools its players into believing that effort and big aspirations pay off. The California Lottery, in essence, gamifies the American Dream.
The lottery is a narrative of false potential, pacifying the ever more precarious masses by dangling in front of us a better, shinier life.
My mother worked, my mother dreamed, but these alone did not afford her financial stability. The lottery is another of America’s promises for economic mobility that it has no intention of keeping. As Jonathan Cohen, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia studying Amerian lotteries, told Bloomberg last year: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that state lotteries started emerging in the 1970s and 1980s when rates of social mobility in the traditional economy stagnated and then declined.”
The lottery is a narrative of false potential, pacifying the ever more precarious masses by dangling in front of us a better, shinier life. Instead of asking how the system is rigged against you, you ask how you can win. My mother, like many lotto players, developed a strategy: she decided that computer-generated QuickPicks were luckier than choosing your own numbers. But in 2016, the multi-state Powerball QuickPick tickets were revealed to be a scam, with machines generating roughly 200 million identical tickets to different players. (I have told her this, though she still buys the QuickPicks.) The ability to choose how the game of the lottery is played — manually selected or computer generated — is a way to deceive the player into believing that they have some agency in their success. The outcome of the state lottery becomes a deflection of responsibility: it directs players’ frustration away from the state for its failures — to provide sufficient welfare, to fund its public school system without relying on those in poverty, to provide a livable minimum wage — and transfigures the state into a potential fairy godmother.
California’s state lottery was established in 1984 to help raise funds for public schools. Because of this, the state can rely less on corporate and income taxes for funding. But why should the poorest residents be responsible for generating this revenue? Several Democratic candidates for the 2020 Presidential election have pushed for higher corporate and income taxes as a means to fund education, including Elizabeth Warren, who has proposed a wealth tax that would generate more federal funding for public schools. In May, the Oregon Senate passed a multibillion dollar education tax on the state’s wealthiest businesses to supply more revenue for state education. Ideally, this legislation would allow for the state’s wealthiest residents and corporations to provide the revenue generated by the state lottery (around 1% of the public school budget in California) and thus provide the state an opportunity to sever its reliance on the poor to purchase lottery tickets.
The dismantling of state lotteries is not the cornerstone of any of these candidates’ or congresspersons’ platforms. The predation of the lottery is not on the mind of most politicians, particularly because the lottery is a game that individuals opt into playing. Any harm from this is considered solely self-inflicted. Yet, dire economic circumstances drive people to play, which make these individuals first and foremost victims of the political and financial systems working against them. What they choose to do to escape these circumstances does not relieve the lottery, as a financial institution, of responsibility for leading its players to believe that poverty can be escaped by gambling one’s way out.
When I visit my mother in California, we’ll sometimes go to the grocery store together. She’ll ask the cashier for five SuperLotto Quick Picks, and she’ll take them with her long fingernails. She estimates she’s spent $3,000 on lottery tickets in her lifetime. “You can’t win if you don’t play,” she says. But it seems, I tell her, that you can’t win if you do play. The lottery did not ever and will not ever provide her with a ranch, or solar panels, or vacations. It will not afford her a better life. This beacon of false hope can be seen at the top of every California lottery ticket, a sun shining above the chosen numbers. It is golden, radiant, looming. And it is blinding.States should not rely on a scam to fund much-needed services. ]]>