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Bill would allow N.C. lottery winners to remain anonymous

Mar 4, 2015, 9:56 am

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North Carolina Lottery

Lottery players in North Carolina who win big money in the games — from a Powerball jackpot to a $600 scratch-off ticket win — can't keep it a secret.

State law says the names of lottery winners and what they won are public information.

But a House bill set for a hearing Wednesday would change that, requiring confidentiality unless the winners consent to having their information released.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Darren Jackson of Wake County, said he's concerned current technology makes it too easy to track down people's information, and that winners are being used to generate interest in the games.

The lottery's website includes a "Winners' Board" of people who agreed to be photographed with a large check showing their winnings. The lottery also sends news releases weekly that feature winners' stories.

"Some people are winning an awful lot of money, and with that comes some unwanted attention," said Jackson, a Democrat. "It seems like we're using their good fortune to advertise the lottery, and I don't think that's fair."

Lottery officials don't think the bill would be good policy and have decided to oppose it, said Van Denton, a spokesman for the N.C. Education Lottery.

He said the lottery's credibility could be undermined if winners' identities are concealed. The idea that government works best when it is transparent holds true with the lottery, Denton said.

"Being open about who wins prizes helps to hold the state and the lottery accountable, and secrecy about who the winners are could lead to questions about who got the prizes," he said.

It's not an academic argument. Lottery officials say they stopped a $1 million fraud in 2012 because of the requirement that winners are made public.

In that case, the wife of a Kangaroo Express clerk claimed the winnings from a scratch-off ticket. After the win was announced, the company contacted officials, and an investigation determined the clerk obtained the ticket illegally.

A balancing act

The law that created the lottery in 2005 did not specify what type of winners' information was public. At the time, officials said they wanted to make public basic information in an effort to ensure the public had confidence in the games; that became the practice.

In 2009, lawmakers clarified that only a winner's name, city or town of residence, the type of game played, the date the prize was claimed and the amount of money won is public record. Officials said that change was to ensure that other information about players — such as phone numbers, addresses or even Social Security numbers — would not be considered public information.

Winners of prizes of $600 or more are required to claim the prize at a lottery office. Denton said that when a winner visits a claim center, the lottery generally gathers personal information, takes a picture and publishes a news release on its website.

"The way the law is now, combined with our practices with winners, allows us to balance the public interest about lottery wins and the private interest of those who win," Denton said.

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have lotteries, and 38 states consider information about who wins to be public.

'I would have said no'

Jackson, a four-term Democrat from Raleigh, said he modeled the bill after similar laws in the six other states that allow winners to remain anonymous.

Delaware, for instance, has a long-standing law that keeps lottery winners' information confidential unless they agree to be publicized. Vernon Kirk, director of the Delaware Lottery, said that since the law was implemented, most have elected to remain anonymous, and there has been little pushback.

South Carolina also allows lottery winners to remain anonymous, though no state law specifically allows secrecy, said Carl Stent, deputy director of legal services for the South Carolina Education Lottery. Stent echoed Jackson's concern about protecting personal information.

"It only heightens the debate when you have banks and hospitals getting a breach in their data," he said. "It's an issue that I'm sure other states will continue to battle with."

Valerie Murphy, a Goldsboro insurance agent, won the lottery in early February, collecting more than $690,000 with a Powerball ticket that matched five of six numbers. She and her husband were featured in a lottery release, expressing their excitement.

"We've been pinching each other all day," she said at the time. "We're paying everything off. The house, the car, the boat... everything. I'm so excited."

In an interview, she said she thinks people should have a choice about publicizing their names when they come forward to claim their prize.

Murphy said she hasn't experienced any unwanted attention since winning, which she attributed to living in a larger town. She said that she could see where small-town winners especially might not want to have their names made public.

"If I had a choice, I would have said no," she said.

Father 'got calls'

Jackson said several of his constituents who have won the lottery have expressed support for his idea since he introduced the bill two years ago.

He acknowledged that his father is one of them: Glenn Jackson won a $1 million Powerball prize in 2007 and "got calls from solicitors for months" afterward, Jackson said in 2013.

He said he hopes the bill has more traction in the legislature this year after not advancing previously. He said it stalled because a slate of other lottery-related bills consumed more attention.

Jackson also said he doesn't view government transparency as a valid concern.

"Nobody has told me that they want to be able to know who wins the lottery because they play," he said.

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