On Dec. 20, a man in Vacaville, California, walked into a grocery store, bought a $30 scratch-off lottery ticket, and thought he had won $10,000. He brought the good news home to his two roommates—a grave mistake, those familiar with the back-stabbing–filled history of lottery-related crime would have warned him.
The next day, he drove the 45 miles to Sacramento to claim his winnings. But employees at the California State Lottery district office told him that his ticket had been altered and was not a winner. The man, who has not been named, became suspicious. He went back to the grocery store and then filed a report with police. Later the same day, one of his roommates, a 35-year-old man named Adul Saosongyang, made the same trip to the lottery office, where he cashed a winning ticket—which was actually worth $10 million.
But Saosongyang’s alleged plan unraveled. The supermarket, which the lottery contacted to confirm the winning ticket, said it may have been stolen, and the lottery and Vacaville Police teamed up to investigate. On Monday, the lottery investigator invited Saosongyang back to Sacramento to collect his winnings, but he was instead met by police, who arrested him and charged him with grand theft. The police’s conclusion: Saosongyang had bought a similar scratch-off ticket and secretly swapped it with the winning one.
The story doesn’t end there: The original buyer has yet to receive his winnings. And with $10 million on the line, the question of its fate isn’t a small one. So what happens if your roommate steals your jackpot-winning lottery ticket?
The unnamed man isn’t guaranteed his prize, according to independent lottery watchdog Dawn Nettles, who has run the publication Lotto Report since 1993. Whenever the ownership of a winning ticket is uncertain, it gets labeled a disputed claim—and the purchaser won’t necessarily get the benefit of the doubt.
According to Nettles, because a state’s lottery sometimes benefits from unclaimed winnings, it often will investigate disputes carefully and refuse to hand out winnings in cases where it has any legitimate reason to question the identity of the winner. In California, though, the lottery does not financially benefit from disputed claims, and a spokesman said its investigators work as efficiently as they can under their limitations to find the true owner of the ticket. The California Lottery wouldn’t go into detail about its process for handling disputed or suspicious claims.
Surveillance footage is typically key in verifying a winner’s identity. When you buy a lottery ticket from a gas station, convenience store, or supermarket, you’re almost certainly on camera. Once your ticket registers as a winning one in the store, the lottery will be alerted. (In California, for any prize over $350,000, an investigation is automatically launched.) According to Nettles, the common practice would be for someone associated with the lottery to call the store and ask to meet to examine footage from the day the ticket was bought.
There are other steps that state lotteries normally take when investigating a disputed ticket: They’ll usually bring the claimant in for something similar to a police interview to ask details about the purchase. Investigators might also speak to employees at the store. Your case would be bolstered if you are a regular. (That said, Nettles still cautioned against announcing your good luck to the whole store. She’s heard of cases of people being tackled or assaulted on the spot over a winning lottery ticket.) According to Russell Lopez, a spokesman for the California Lottery, there are other elements in an investigation that can determine with greater certainty who made the purchase. If the ticket has been altered—if someone writes his name on the back of the ticket in ink and a friend steals the ticket and tries to cross out and replace the signature, for example—the lottery could send the ticket to a forensics lab to determine whether the alteration was innocent or part of a scam. If they found the alteration was malicious, it’s possible the lottery would also not find the true owner, and the money would go unclaimed. And in the Vacaville case, where the alleged victim didn’t sign his name and Saosongyang brought in an unmarked ticket, it was very possible that the suspect could have gotten away with theft if the victim hadn’t reported it.
But the Vacaville man’s case, in fact, looks strong. According to the Lt. Chris Polen of the Vacaville police, cameras caught him both buying the ticket at the store and returning to a lottery-scanning machine in the store to verify it was a winner. A statement from the California Lottery also appears to indicate he has a good chance of getting his winnings: “The Lottery is currently conducting its claim evaluation on this case. Once the Lottery verifies the identity of the winner of the ticket it will pay that claimant the $10 million prize.” (Lopez said he couldn’t estimate when the investigation would be done.)
But for everyone else, here’s the advice for how to best protect your prize money from the risk of scheming roommates: Interact with employees and/or make your face clearly visible to cameras at the store. Sign the back of ticket in ink when you win. Take your ticket to a safe and memorable spot. Get your legal affairs in order before you cash in on a large jackpot, but also don’t wait too long and risk having the store delete footage of the purchase before you make your claim. Most importantly, keep the news, and your ticket, to yourself.