LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Are lottery retailers beating the odds, or is there something more going on?
A CBS2 News investigation found some store owners cashing in winning lottery tickets at surprising rates.
Ali Ibrahim, owner of Hi-Crest Liquor & Junior Market in Garden Grove, is winning big.
CBS2 found Ibrahim and his family have cashed in almost all the big winners purchased at his store.
“You’ve won more than $300,000. What is your secret?” CBS2 Investigative Reporter David Goldstein asked.
And he’s not alone. CBS2 found retailers across Southern California who cashed in tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars in winnings purchased at their stores. It’s not illegal, but experts say some may be defying the odds.
CBS2 obtained the names of every person who won $600 or more playing the California Lottery over the past 11 years, which came out to nearly 500,000 winning tickets.
In the business, they’re called taxable tickets, because jackpots of $600 and more have to be cashed at the California Lottery District Office. There, officials will take out federal taxes and any child support or money owed to the state.
CBS2 found Ibrahim on the list. He won $600 or more 192 times and has gleaned more than $300,000. Most of it came from tickets purchased at his own store; Ibrahim won 142 of the 188 winning tickets at Hi-Crest.
If you include his relatives — they won 166 of the 188 winning tickets — purchased at Hi-Crest, which comes out to 88 percent of the winning tickets.
Ibrahim didn’t want to talk about it.
“Mr. Ibrahim, can I ask you a question? Seventy-five percent of your taxable winners in your store, you’ve won. You’ve won three out of four tickets of $600 or more. How are you doing that?” Goldstein asked. “Can you answer the question, sir?”
Skip Garibaldi is associate director of the UCLA Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics.
His take on Ibrahim’s lucky streak: “Yeah, that is very peculiar for sure.”
The mathematician calculates that some of these retailers are even beating the best Las Vegas odds or spending an absurd amount of money. In Ibrahim’s case, Garibaldi said he would have had to spend big bucks.
“I think he spent about $2 million on Hot Spot, which is his preferred game,” the expert said.
“$2 million to win $304,000?” Goldstein said.
“That’s right. That’s what it looks like from the numbers,” Garibaldi said.
At California Lottery headquarters in Sacramento, security officials say Ibrahim’s frequency of winnings certainly has put him on their radar – more than once.
“We’ve probably done at least 10 investigations in that location … because we want to test the integrity of the retailer,” said Stephen Tacchini, the deputy director of law enforcement for the State Lottery and the former chief of the San Francisco Police Department.
He said they haven’t caught Ibrahim doing anything wrong, but they’re watching.
“Do you think it’s suspicious winning three out of four?” Goldstein said.
“I can draw some conclusions, but there’s nothing we found that he’s doing wrong. He may be purchasing tickets from customers, which is a violation of our regulations. We know that does occur,” Tacchini said.
That’s one reason why retailers’ names are near the top of the list for suspicious winners.
Experts say they’ve been known to purchase winning tickets for 50 or 75 cents on the dollar, if the winner is trying to avoid paying taxes or debts. That’s against the rules.
Lottery officials also conduct stings in which an undercover officer posing as a customer hands a clerk a winning ticket, only to have him come back and say it’s a loser.
Some retailers are also known to gamble more than others, which is why they may win. And when they do, they say it’s just their lucky day.
Or is it?
Angela Kouch owns MJB Video in Koreatown. Her 119 wins at the store netted her more than $79,000. Her husband had one win for $5,000.
And a frequent customer Jose Ruiz has won 260 times, tallying more than $200,000. Together, they’ve won 380 of the 392 taxable wins in the store since 2003, which comes out to 96 percent.
But when pressed, Kouch admitted not all the wins were hers.
“So, you were buying winning tickets?” Goldstein said.
“Yeah,” she said.
“That’s not allowed,” Goldstein said.
“I don’t make money,” Kouch replied.
She says the Lottery caught her and withheld money.
“Are you buying winning tickets from other people?” Goldstein asked Ruiz.
“On occasion,” Ruiz replied.
Ruiz also confessed to buying tickets but said he pools money with friends, and most of his wins were legitimate.
“June, July, August, September of this year – you got every month,” Goldstein said of Ruiz’s winning streak.
“That’s pretty good,” Goldstein said.
“Not bad. I play to win,” he replied.
Then there’s Cuong Nguyen, who owns a café in Reseda that’s claimed 75 Lottery wins in the past 11 years. If you included his relatives, that came out to 99 of the stores 204 taxable wins. That’s 48 percent of all taxable wins.
Nguyen had a familiar response: “Yeah, it’s luck.”
“It’s just luck?” Goldstein asked.
Nguyen replied: “Yeah.”
The same went for Assad Harmouch. He owns Village Liquor in La Crescenta. He’s had an amazing winning streak: 17 scratcher winners at his own store in the past three years, raking in $59,000 total.
“Last year, you won $1,000 on Oct. 16th, $1,000 on Oct. 21, $1,000 on Oct. 29, $25,000 on Nov. 14,” Goldstein told Harmouch.
“That’s correct,” Harmouch said.
“That’s a pretty lucky streak,” Goldstein replied.
“Thank you. Well, I spend a lot also at the same time,” he said.
Garibaldi said the odds of winning more than $600 on a scratcher are one in 1,917. He estimated Harmouch would have had to spend nearly $600,000 to win $59,000.
“That doesn’t make sense right?” Goldstein asked the mathematician.
“I agree; it does not make sense,” Garibaldi said.
Bill Hertoghe was the former head of security for the California Lottery.
“ ‘Lucky,’ I hear that a lot, yeah,” Hertoghe said. “In my experience, they’re not that lucky. And if they are, they shouldn’t be just retailers. They should be professional gamblers.”
He believes some retailers are buying tickets or scamming winners. The Lottery said it has a security force to crack down on those who are skirting the rules.
Critics said these people are beating the odds so much so they may be too lucky.
Lottery officials said that without absolute proof, it’s difficult to break the contracts with retailers. In fact, they’ve been sued for doing so in the past.