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Florida officials investigate possible lottery scam

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida authorities removed all lottery equipment and tickets from three convenience stores on Wednesday after an investigation by local newspaper found that store owners and clerks may have stolen millions of dollars in winning tickets and cashed them.

The investigation, by The Palm Beach Post, found unusual patterns of lottery winnings in recent years, including more than 200 people who cashed tickets each worth more than $600 at least 30 times at different stores.

Many of the big winners were store owners and clerks at stores that sold tickets, the Post reported.

David Bishop, a Florida lottery spokesman, said lottery officials are investigating operations at each of the three stores for possible criminal activity.

He said the role of store owners and the clerks was also being examined and whether they "would scan the ticket, say it's not a winner when it was ... and go on to cash it" under different names.

No arrests were made on Wednesday, according to a spokeswoman from the Broward County Sheriff's office.

The Post investigation identified a man who said he never picked a winning lottery ticket but whose name appeared as someone who had collected more than $700,000 in winnings over the last seven years.

The man, 68-year-old Louis Tillman Johnson, won 252 times on 196 dates, according to the Post. The paper estimated under current odds he would have had to spend more than $2 million on tickets to collect his reported $719,000 in winnings.

"There's something strange going on," Johnson told the Post.

Bishop said the three stores, in Pompano Beach north of Fort Lauderdale, had been under investigation since August 2013.

The lottery agency, which state lawmakers are seeking to regulate under a gaming commission, also said it has run undercover investigations into lottery fraud since 2009, making 19 arrests without publicizing them.

Lottery officials also said on Wednesday they will begin using software that tracks winnings in real time.

Florida's lottery is overseen by Governor Rick Scott's office and its proceeds are used to fund public education throughout the state.

More than $5 billion in tickets are sold annually in more than 13,000 locations in Florida.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Steve Orlofsky)

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