Last fall, a gang of crooks using crowbars, hammers, a drill and propane tank to break into Dildar Kumar’s convenience store in Queens, New York, in the deep of night. After smashing through the roof and dropping into the store, they plucked $2,000 from his ATM machine and snatched his entire stockpile of cigarette cartons.
But they also took one more thing from JMD Grocery before jumping into a Honda getaway car driven by a 15-year-old: tens of thousands of dollars worth of unused scratch off lottery tickets that were simply hanging on the wall behind Kumar’s cash register.
Sales of scratch-off lottery tickets—also variously known as scatchies, scratchers and scratch-its—have become a big money pot for states. Lotto tickets are also popular with retailers, who get a cut of every sale and use the tickets to drive foot traffic and sales of everything from milk to gum to cigarettes. And now, from California to Florida, thieves are also developing a fondness for them.
In some cases, the perps are disgruntled store clerks pocketing tickets during their shifts. In others, it’s robbers who burst into stores to empty the till and then grab anything else they see of value, including the strips of scratch-off tickets sitting right behind the register. But sometimes the crimes are more audacious. In one incident in Freemont, California, crooks carted out an entire scratch-off lottery machine through a supermarket’s sliding doors via trolley.
One New York Police Department detective who was recently on the trail of a scratch-off gang in Brooklyn, New York, got a tip on their hideout. When he busted in, he says he discovered a lottery party of sorts. “They were getting high and scratching and scratching,” says the detective, who requested anonymity. The apartment was littered with takeout Chinese containers and “reams and reams” of lottery tickets. He says the group of 10 men had sold off some of the unused tickets and given some to their relatives.
Lottery commissions in New York, California, Connecticut and other states say they know about the theft problem and have it all under control. They say that if retailers report the thefts promptly, they can put an immediate block on the stolen tickets that prevents them from being redeemed. “As soon as we know someone stole the ticket to the moment they try to cash it, we have them on camera, and within minutes the police can be waiting outside to greet them,” says Iowa Lottery CEO Terry Rich.
Kumar says the system didn’t work in his case. He says he reported the heist as soon as it happened. “I called the [New York State] Lottery and told them to stop the tickets, but they didn’t stop the tickets until 7 at night the following day.”
The New York Lottery wouldn’t comment on Kumar’s case specifically, saying only: ”Our system allows an approved user to lock down the ticket book or ticket number so that the ticket cannot be cashed.”
Meanwhile, Kumar is panicking. He says New York State Gaming officials told him that the cat burglars were able to cash in $22,000 in scratch-off winnings, and as a penalty, he says they confiscated the machine in his store that dispensed Powerball lottery tickets.
He says he used to bank $10,000 a week in gross sales from his store, but business is down 70 percent since the machine was yanked. “People used to come here to buy coffee, cigarettes and newspapers, and now without the lottery they go to other places,” he says. ”If things don’t change, I will lose my store by the end of the month.”
At the Flying K gas station in Toledo, Washington, the scratch-off thefts were an inside job. Clerk Katrina Bowen built a habit of pilfering scratch-off tickets (as well as the cash from beer sales). The damage over several months of scratch-offs totaled more than $170,000.
Bowen quickly confessed. “I have been working for them for nine years, and I have never gotten a raise. I need money to live,” Toledo Police Chief John Brockmueller says Bowen told him.
“I think in the beginning it was taking a couple tickets and snowballed, and boom, she was going through a pack of tickets a day,” says Brockmueller.
During a sentencing hearing this month, Bowen, a first-time offender, pleaded for mercy. But Superior Court Judge Richard Brosey slapped her with a four-year sentence. “The judge was saying he is seeing this scratch-off theft pretty frequently and even when caught they’re only getting 90 days,” Brockmueller says. “This time he was like, ‘No man, I’m going to hammer her.’”
Scratch-off tickets are a growth industry. States like California and New York take in almost $5 billion a year from lottery sales—and typically more than half of that comes from scratch-off tickets. The tickets come in books of $300 and in various denominations, from a buck all the way up to $50 in Texas, where you can scratch your way to a $7.5 million jackpot. A typical small store in New York can sell $6,000 in scratch-off tickets a week, and can keep 6% of that as a commission.
For robbers, the sweet spot is any tickets under $600 because those winning tickets can be cashed without identification. Another loophole that the crooks exploit: In an effort to be able to sell the tickets more swiftly when the stores are busy, some clerks scan the scratch tickets immediately rather than waiting until they are actually sold. That’s important because in some states, unscanned tickets are effectively dead paper.
With the rise in thefts, Connecticut lottery officials are now requiring sellers to deactivate their entire scratch-off ticket inventory at the close of every business—deactivation prevents a winning ticket from being cashed.
Iowa’s CEO Rich says crooks should stick to perennial favorites like booze and smokes. “We’re usually the product that sends people to jail,” he says. “There may be people doing drugs or stealing beer or other things, but it’s the lottery tickets that is sending them to jail.”
“The dumbest thing you can steal is a lottery ticket.”
But the same crew that hit Kumar’s store also knocked off more than a dozen other stores and restaurants in New York City over four months, grossing tens of thousands of dollars. That included Bambi Cards and Gifts, in another parts of Queens. The store’s owner has since installed a plastic lotto lock box, but he doesn’t expect that to help much.
“Yeah, there is a lock box now, but you can break it anytime,” he says. “If they break the roof and ATM, what is a plastic box? A plastic box is nothing.”
Police say that when they finally cornered the crew behind the string of Queens thefts, four of the five men tried to climb trees to escape, before ultimately surrendering.