What would you do if you won the lottery?
And what if you could figure out a system that would help you win it?
Pat Jackson thought perhaps someone had done that when she read about a couple that won a $10,000 scratch-off prize and then a $1 million scratch-off prize on the same day in different counties. Jackson, who lives in Charlotte, became curious about the distribution of the thousands of scratch-off tickets that are sold at nearly 7,000 locations across the state.
So she posed a question to CuriousNC, a joint venture between The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun that invites readers to submit questions about North Carolina for their reporters to answer.
Her question: Are scratch-off tickets distributed to the same counties in the same sequence every month?
Scratch-off tickets — a type of instant game — don't begin their journey in North Carolina. A majority of the state's tickets are printed in Alpharetta, Ga., by Scientific Games, which has an eight-year contract with the North Carolina Lottery Commission to print the tickets. But some tickets are also printed by IGT in Lakeland, Fla., and by Pollard Banknote in Ypsilanti, Mich.
Those three companies are the primary scratch-off ticket printers in the world, said Van Denton, North Carolina Education Lottery communications director.
Once they are printed, tickets are shipped to a secret warehouse centrally located in North Carolina. From there, two companies deliver the packs of tickets to stores where employees scan the tickets to activate them. If a box or packet of tickets gets lost or goes missing before it gets to the store, no prizes can be claimed because the tickets weren't activated.
Once activated tickets are available for purchase. Stores make a 7 percent commission for any ticket sold, meaning they get 7 cents for every $1 ticket sold.
The number of tickets printed can range from short-term $1 games meant to stay on the shelves four or five months to $30 games expected to be sold for more than two years. The number of winning tickets per game varies depending on the type of game, but tickets with prizes are printed and randomly placed in the packets.
When a store is running low on a particular game and wants more, they notify the state and order more packs of tickets. Those packs of tickets are then shipped from the warehouse in sequential order on a first-come, first-served basis.
New scratch-off tickets are released on the first Tuesday of the month with five new games out this month by Aug. 7. Those tickets are also delivered on a first-come, first-served basis in sequential order. That means the first store to put in a request for the game will receive the pack that has the first ticket printed. (Stores don't have to carry all of the new games, and some stores may get the newest games a day or two early; it just depends on how long it takes for them to be delivered.)
So, no, tickets aren't shipped to the same county or store in the same order each week or month.
"What's important for our lottery and any lottery is that the public and customers feel the process is distributing the tickets fairly and securely so they have a chance to win a prize when they buy a ticket like anybody else who wins a prize," Denton said.
North Carolina follows the best practices in the lottery industry, he said, to "ensure that fairness and ensure the integrity of those games."
There are anywhere from 50 to 60 games available for people to play, but most stores average only about 34 games per location. Scratch-off tickets made up nearly 70 percent of all lottery ticket sales within the last 12 months.
The CJ Food Store, off Gum Branch Road in Jacksonville, has sold the most tickets in the state in the past 12 months and plasters the names and prize amounts of winners all over the store.
There are some who believe the store is lucky and travel from nearby small towns, but there are also several people from the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and their families who play, said store owner Mahendra Surti.
The customer service is the biggest draw, he said, adding they also pay out prizes fast.
It's a similar story at Eagles Express, the Knightdale store that has sold the third most scratch-off tickets in North Carolina in the last 12 months. Annie Lomison, manager of the store, said the store purchases anywhere between 100 to 130 packs of tickets each week as it tries to keep a good selection and rotation of games.
Pat Jackson, who submitted the question, said she's glad to know the packs of tickets are sent randomly to retailers, but she's still skeptical of people who are able to win multiple prizes.
And she's right to raise an eyebrow. A 2016 investigation found that more than 300 people claimed 12 or more winning scratch-off tickets worth at least $600 each. (See Some NC lottery players win so often, their good fortune defies logic, Lottery Post, Oct. 1, 2016.)
Despite statisticians who said the odds of some of those winners being improbable, lottery officials said at the time that there "are lucky people in this world."
Top counties for scratch-off prizes
- Wake: $109,697,203
- Mecklenburg: $101,052,663
- Guilford: $75,903,165
- Cumberland: $53,246,928
- Durham: $44,904,865
- Forsyth: $43,509,687
- New Hanover: $30,559,644
- Brunswick: $29,315,288
- Alamance: $28,611,398