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N.D. Lottery wrestles with credit card buying options

Dec 4, 2007, 7:10 pm

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North Dakota Lottery

The North Dakota Lottery's recently announced holiday sale of ticket subscriptions highlights a quirk in its operations. Gamblers are barred from using a credit card to buy tickets, but they may use plastic to play one of the lottery's four games dozens of times over an extended period.

Credit card sales are limited to subscriptions, said Chuck Keller, the director of North Dakota's lottery. A subscription allows a gambler to buy a chance to play the same lottery number for 13, 26 or 52 straight weeks.

The lottery sells subscriptions for all four of its games — Powerball, Hot Lotto, Wild Card 2 and 2 by 2. Subscriptions represent a small percentage of its total sales, and are sold directly by North Dakota's lottery office. Subscriptions are not available through the lottery's statewide network of retailers.

Keller said the holiday subscription sale, which was announced a week ago, is part of an effort to step up the lottery's subscription marketing. It provides 10 percent off the price of subscriptions sold until Dec. 31.

"We may do it again for special occasions," Keller said. "But this is the first time we have done something like this."

For example, the sale cuts the price of a 52-week Powerball subscription, which is normally $104, to $94. Powerball has drawings each Wednesday and Saturday, and a ticket normally costs $1. The discount is larger for subscriptions to more frequently played games.

North Dakotans who buy lottery tickets at a service station, grocery store or other retailer may not use a credit card to buy tickets, the lottery's rules say. Merchants may accept checks or debit cards, which take funds directly from the holder's account.

Bruce Brooks, of Minot, who is a critic of the lottery, said the state should not allow gambling on credit.

"I'm just against the idea of using credit to bet," Brooks said. "That makes the state lottery office kind of like a loan shark, at much reduced rates, of course. There is no obvious control of the use of credit cards for subscriptions."

Lottery subscription forms require players to list their birth dates and attest that they are at least 18 years old, which is the minimum age for buying a lottery ticket. Brooks believes subscriptions provide a way for minors to gamble on the sly.

"How many kids under whatever age have gotten on (the Internet) with their parents' credit cards and used them to buy things on the Internet that they're not supposed to buy?" Brooks asked.

Keller said subscriptions allow North Dakotans who travel during the wintertime to take part in their home state's lottery. It also helps players in rural areas when a ticket seller is not close by, he said.

"It is an alternate distribution channel for the lottery," Keller said. "We anticipate our subscription service growing considerably over the next five years."

Subscriptions also may lessen a gambler's temptation to buy more tickets if a game's jackpot has grown larger, Keller said. However, a lottery subscriber is not prevented from buying additional tickets at a retailer.

The lottery adopted rules to allow credit-card sales of subscriptions in April 2006, while retaining a ban on credit sales for individual tickets. Keller said the change was aimed at making it more convenient for players to buy subscriptions through the lottery's Web site.

Normally, a business that takes credit cards must pay a fee to the credit-card company for each sale. The lottery absorbs the fee, which is less than the 5 percent sales commission it would have to pay on each ticket sold by a retailer.

The lottery also would not be obliged to pay a bonus to a merchant for a jackpot ticket sold through a subscription.

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