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Some Virginia Lottery Winners May Soon Be Allowed To Conceal Identity

At the Virginia Lottery headquarters in Richmond, spokesman John Hagerty takes me to the prize zone, which he says “can be a very happy place.” It’s a bright green room where people come to cash in on winnings of more than $600.

Last year, the Virginia Lottery paid out more than 65 million winning tickets. About 37,000 were for prize amounts over $600. Winners, by law, have to disclose their address, social security number and date of birth among other personal details on a form to claim their prize.

Some of that information, like the winner’s name, prize amount and hometown automatically become public record.

"Now that’s been the law since the lottery began to prove that real people, really do win the lottery,” he said.

Hagerty said some lottery winners who come in are worried about announcing to the world, their neighbors and extended family members that they’ve suddenly and unexpectedly become rich. There are stories of lottery winners in other states who were conned, swindled and even murdered.

That’s why Virginia Senator Lionell Spruill (D-Chesapeake) introduced a bill this year to allow lottery winners in the state to remain anonymous. He said it used to be exciting and funny to see winners on TV, but not anymore.

“They’re scared to come out of the house now,” he said. “They’ve got to move out of town because I want to stay here but I’m scared now. They think I’ve got that kind of money in the house.”

Spruill wanted to allow winners to conceal their regardless of their prize amount, but lawmakers ultimately decided that only people who win more than $10 million dollars could remain anonymous.

Senator Scott Surovell initially opposed Spruill’s bill because he says he’s an attorney who represents people who are owed money.

“And if somebody comes into a lot of money and a child support could be paid off or a judgment could be paid I think the public ought to know so these people could be held accountable,” he said.

He finally agreed to the high-dollar threshold, but Surovell’s still worried about fraud.

And, that’s already been an issue in Virginia.

The Virginia Lottery, in recent years, changed their claim form to ask winners about any potential affiliation they might have with retailers. This was an effort to prevent fraud.

Lottery spokesman John Hagerty said, as a result, they opened 41 investigations. And, he says seven retailers have been notified that their licenses could be revoked.  Hagerty wouldn’t say how many, if any, have been revoked yet.

Megan Rhyne is with the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

“People know people have money,” she said. “Whether it’s winning the lottery or going on a game show and winning $20 million. All of those people are potentially at risk as well. But what makes lottery winners different, is that they are receiving money through a state-run program. A government run program.”

While the majority of lottery revenue goes to prizes, a portion goes to K-12 education. The lottery makes up about 10 percent of all public education spending in the state.  

John Hagerty says they’ve taken several new measures to prevent fraud, but wouldn’t list them for security reasons.

“We don’t want the perception to be out there that lottery retailers or anyone else might have an unfair advantage,” he said.

State Lawmakers also passed a bill this year to fine anyone who sells lottery tickets at a discount or helps a winner conceal their identity.  

If Spruill’s bill is signed into law, Virginia would join states like Maryland, South Carolina, and Texas, in providing some level of privacy for lottery winners.

 

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Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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