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Minn. store clerk accused of "micro-scratching" lottery tickets

Jun 26, 2012, 8:54 am

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Minnesota Lottery

What began as a complaint from a lottery customer about the loss of $15 led to an undercover operation and eventually the arrest of a store clerk for lottery fraud.

A man told the Minnesota State Lottery he'd bought a scratch ticket at the Casablanca Market in Hopkins. He scratched it and found he'd won $15.

But, when he took the ticket to the Lottery booth at the Minnesota State Fair, he was told the ticket had already been redeemed.

Lottery Security checked the records they had from Casablanca Market and "found that a large number of manual validations or scratch tickets were being run at the retailer," an investigator wrote in a criminal complaint.

According to the complaint, investigators suspected "micro-scratching."

"Micro-scratching is a term used by investigators to describe a particular method of discerning whether a ticket is a winner or a non-winner in a way that is largely undetectable," wrote the investigator. "Micro-scratching consists of someone using a small sharp object, such as a razor blade or a small knife, to remove a microscopic portion of the inks, coatings, and sealants covering the play area of the scratch ticket in an attempt to reveal the three digit validation code."

The three digit validation code, when combined with the bar code on the back of the ticket, can be used to determine whether the ticket is a winner. According to the complaint, investigators checked the records and found the $15 winning ticket bought at Casablanca Market had been checked using that method.

Lottery Security called in the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division (AGED).

Five times in December and January, an AGED Special Agent went into Casablanca Market undercover to buy scratch tickets. At the same time, Lottery Security monitored checks of scratch tickets using the three digit validation code.

When she left the store after the first visit, the AGED Special Agent looked up the owners of the vehicles in the parking lot. She then looked at the driver's license photos of those owners. One of the vehicles belonged to 34-year-old Mourad Zahi. The AGED Special agent said she recognized Zahi as the clerk.

The last two undercover operations happened January 24. On both visits, the AGED Special Agent bought tickets she later suspected had been micro-scratched. Lottery Security checked its records and found those same tickets had been checked using the three digit validation code.

The AGED Special Agent came back a week later, armed with a search warrant. She wrote that she watched surveillance video from the store and saw Zahi checking scratch tickets on the dates they'd determined the micro-scratching occurred.

"Notably, prior to each manual validation he conducted, the defendant was observed taking a scratch ticket/roll/or pack of tickets from the ticket dispensing area under the front counter, and then stepping out of view of the surveillance cameras for 30-60 seconds."

Zahi has been charged with two counts of State Lottery Fraud, two counts of Gambling-Cheating, and a single count of Gambling-Attempted Cheating. All are felonies.

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