When a pair of investigators from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation paid a visit to Kathryn Jones’s Hamilton home in October, it was the beginning of the end of a year-long search that culminated in the engineer and mother of two making headlines this week as the rightful winner of a lost $50-million lottery ticket.
The OLG’s 25-strong investigative team, comprised primarily of former law enforcement officers, usually only focuses on verifying or disputing claims that come to them. Besides appealing to the public for winners to identify themselves through media outreach, the OLG does not scour voluntarily for lottery winners. There were $22 million in unclaimed prizes last year, and the unclaimed spoils either go back to players in future jackpots or into profits that go to the province.
This is the first time the OLG sought out a winner of their own volition. It took 17 investigators sifting through 435 false claims for one year to find her – a month before the ticket was set to expire.
The extensive saga began shortly after the Lotto Max draw on Nov. 30, 2012.
“No one [came] to officially claim the ticket, but we had hundreds of inquiries,” said Tony Bitonti, OLG spokesman. “We have to do the due diligence and review every one of these inquiries and claims.”
Bitonti said the OLG typically waits about two months for a winner to claim their prize. A winning ticket is valid for one year from the draw date, and some people consult with relatives and financial advisors before identifying themselves to the OLG, he explained.
The OLG stores detailed information about tickets purchased at lottery terminals across the province in its DART system, short for Data Analysis and Retrieval Technology. The technology was introduced to combat fraud after a 2009 audit, spurred by a CBC investigation, showed that the number of wins by insiders and lottery retailers over a period of more than 10 years was twice the OLG’s estimate.
More than 16 billion transactions can be identified in DART by the exact time and location they were bought, for how much and the numbers played. What the OLG doesn’t have in its data analytics tool, however, is information that identifies the ticket buyers.
So eight weeks after the Lotto Max draw, the lottery corporation began their media outreach. They posted a small number of details about the unclaimed ticket on their website hoping the winner would come forward. The only revealing detail offered, besides the ticket’s dollar value and expiry date, was that it was bought in Cambridge where Jones works. The OLG did not disclose the day the ticket was bought, the outlet it was purchased at – a Shopper’s Drug Mart, the amount paid for it – $16, or the method of payment – credit card.
The calls began pouring in. Over the course of the next year, 435 claims were made on this ticket. Some people suspected they may have won after losing their own tickets, and some produced tickets that did not match the one drawn. Many were easy to discount. Investigators merely had to ask callers which lottery terminal they bought their ticket at and when.
One of those 435 inquiries prompted OLG officials to visit the Shopper’s Drug Mart in question at 115 Dundas St. N. and obtain the security camera video taken when the ticket was purchased. Bitonti refused to disclose any information that would identify that claimant, but he said this particular inquiry led them to identify the real winner of the $50-million prize.
“The video tape clearly shows the identified winner purchasing the ticket at that location,” Bitonti said. “There was no other $16 ticket purchased at that store on that day,” Bitonti said.
Armed with this piece of evidence, the OLG investigators got help from Shopper’s Drug Mart to determine the winner’s name and address in Hamilton. Neither Shopper’s nor the OLG would disclose how they obtained this crucial information. Shopper’s, like many retailers, has a loyalty program through which consumers’ personal data is collected. Bitonti said the OLG does not violate privacy laws to obtain this information and ensure prizes are awarded to the right person.
When investigators visited Jones at her home on a weekend morning in October, she didn’t want to let the two strangers in, but decided they were legitimate after they showed her their identification. Unbeknownst to her, a third OLG official was hanging back in a car watching her facial expressions and movements to compare them to the woman in the Shopper’s video.
Jones, 55, wasn’t able to produce her ticket with the seven matching numbers and OLG staff had more digging to do to ensure she was the right winner. They told her the purpose of their visit without revealing too much. They asked her if she had ever bought a lottery ticket, where she usually buys them and how often she plays. The lead investigator on the case is a 30-year veteran of the Toronto police force.
“At that point, I had no idea what they were talking about,” Jones said to the media Tuesday, adding that it never occurred to her to find out if she won because she was busy at work and with Christmas preparations, and she just forgot all about it.
The interview did not last long. Jones had a plane to catch for a business trip. After she left, her husband fielded a few more questions. Still in disbelief, Jones called the lottery corporation when she returned.
After approximately eight more interviews, two of which were very “in-depth”, according to Bitonti, and after Jones shared her credit card statement showing proof of the winning ticket’s purchase, the OLG was finally ready to announce her as the official winner of the $50 million Lotto Max jackpot.
“I feel very grateful. No one had to take that initiative (to find me) and they did and I’m very appreciative,” Jones said.
She still has to wait another month before the money can be delivered to her, however. She has a sister in Ottawa who owns a store that sells lottery tickets, and the OLG must wait 30 days in case members of the public make additional claims or disputes connected to her sister’s store – another change brought about after the insider wins scandal.
Already, a couple of people have called to try to claim her prize since she was announced as the winner, and investigators are obligated to verify these claims.