In August and September, teenagers working for North Carolina state law enforcement officers walked into more than 300 places where North Carolina lottery tickets are sold.
They had been given strict and careful instructions. Try to buy a ticket. Carry your real ID. If asked about your age, don't lie.
At 91 stores — more than 28 percent of the locations checked — clerks sold them tickets, even though it is against the law to sell one to a person younger than 18.
Such violations were found across the state, including in Southeastern North Carolina.
Agents of N.C. Alcohol Law Enforcement issued 91 misdemeanor citations, including 10 to store managers and owners.
ALE chief Mike Robertson said the 28.6 percent noncompliance rate is unacceptably high.
The revelations from the unannounced compliance checks set off a flurry of actions by the N.C. Education Lottery, said its director, Tom Shaheen.
"We are very concerned about this issue," he said. "But we also believe the problem will decline over time."
Out of the experience has come a new lottery policy — get caught selling to a minor a second time and face suspension; sell three times and lose your license to sell tickets.
Among those cited were clerks at a Scotchman store on Eastwood Road in Wilmington and the Maco Depot convenience store in Leland, as well as a Hills Grocery Store and a Time Saver convenience store in Whiteville.
"It hasn't clicked yet that this is a truly statutorily age-restricted product," Robertson said. He pointed to better training as a solution.
Shaheen said the problem may also be a lack of seriousness by some.
"Some might be saying 'Oh, it's just a lottery ticket,'" he said. "We, however, take it veryseriously."
A store manager said one cited clerk wasn't diligent enough.
"She did card the person; she didn't look at the month — she just looked at the year," said Pam Soles, manager of Time Saver No. 4 food store on James B. White Highway in Whiteville. "The person was just a few days" shy of turning 18, she said.
Selling a lottery ticket to a minor is a class 1 misdemeanor. A person without a criminal record faces a sentence of up to 45 days of community service.
The Whiteville store, Soles said, learned a lesson.
"All of my employees are aware they have to card, even for the lottery," she said.
The state's retail clerks regularly do a better job checking IDs of those who want to buy tobacco and beer than they do for lottery tickets, according to ALE.
The noncompliance rate for tobacco sales, where purchasers must be 18 or older, has to be less than 20 percent, by federal law, Robertson said. North Carolina has scored well, as low as 7 percent.
The rate for ALE checks on alcohol sales, where the age requirement is 21, run 20 to 25 percent. That number could be lower, too, Robertson said.
When state lawmakers created the lottery in late 2005, they limited the sale of tickets to adults and created the crime of selling lottery tickets to a minor. On the back of every ticket is printed: "You must be 18 years of age to play."
But those facts were just three among the thousands transmitted to lottery sellers during busy training sessions held before the lottery's launch at the end of April.
The message might not have gotten through to all retailers, said lottery and law enforcement officials.
Robertson said retailers need more specific reminders and their employees need instruction in the law similar to what they already get for beer and cigarette sales.
"It should be the same ID check," Robertson said, who then pointed to the colored border the state puts on young people's driver's licenses. "Our saying is: 'If it's red, the sale is dead.'"
Since the ALE shared the compliance check data with the lottery, actions have been taken to remind ticket sellers about the law.
On Sept. 15, a reminder letter was hand-delivered by the lottery's regional ticket agents to every lottery selling location. The same letter was sent to the headquarters of retail chains that own multiple locations.
Around the same time, letters were sent to the owners of the 91 cited locations warning of possible suspension of lottery licenses after "any future substantiated violation."
Now, every call to the lottery's retailer hot line ends with a reminder that selling to minors is illegal. The words of that script are taped to every hot-line phone at the lottery's Raleigh headquarters.
Recently, lottery officials sent the same message to the electronic terminals at the state's more than 5,000 lottery locations. The e-mails cannot be deleted without first being opened, Shaheen said.
The messages will soon be sent at the start of each working shift two times every month, he said.