Lottery winners can’t stay anonymous in most states. Some people are trying to change that.
Why privacy seems more important to lottery winners today.
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Powerball and Mega Millions tickets. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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In 2006, a Florida man named Abraham Shakespeare won $31 million in the lottery. In 2009, after he’d spent most of the money, he disappeared; his body was found in early 2010 under a concrete slab. Per the Cleveland Plain Dealer, police suspect the person responsible was a woman who had befriended him after his big win and “fleeced him of $1.8 million.”
In November 2015, a 20-year-old forklift operator in Georgia named Craigory Burch won $434,000 in the lottery; the following January, he was shot and killed in a home invasion. Police, who eventually charged seven people with his murder, said he was a “pre-selected target.”
Stories like these are not just random examples of the so-called “lottery curse”: They can happen because in most of the US, lottery winners are required by law to publicly disclose their identities.
Winners must sign the back of the ticket to officially claim it, then contact their state’s lottery commission, which announces the lottery is closed by saying who won. In only eight states — Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, and Texas — are winners allowed to conceal their names, but even then, they can only stay anonymous below a certain earnings threshold or for a certain time period.
This means that often, a winner’s name, hometown, and prize amount are easily available to anyone who’s interested — a scary prospect given that, as Amy B. Wang writes for the Washington Post, “lottery winners are famously susceptible to becoming targets for everything from extortion to blackmail to even kidnapping.”
With the Mega Millions jackpot currently sitting at a record $1.6 billion, safety for the winner is no doubt a concern — but the issue is also about our right to and desire for privacy in the first place, which seems less and less achievable even for non-lottery winners. Fear of your personal information being poached and used maliciously seems more likely than any physical harm, and in the era of Facebook data breaches, privacy feels even more precious.
Recently, a slew of legal battles and proposed bills have started to challenge the status quo, claiming that winners should have the right to privacy. This highlights the concern that the internet has catalyzed our ability to locate (and potentially harm) one another. After all, when the official American-run lottery began in 1934, there was no technology that allowed people to easily find and harass winners (or paperlessly drain their bank accounts).
Some states have recognized a right to privacy as a logical evolution to the lottery experience. This year, a judge in Merrimack, New Hampshire, ruled in favor of a woman who wanted to conceal her identity after winning $560 million. The judge said that “should Ms. Doe’s identity be revealed, she will be subject to an alarming amount of harassment, solicitation and other unwanted communications,” which is enough reason to let her keep her address and name private.
In 2017, Texas passed a bill saying that if earnings exceed $1 million, winners may conceal their identity. Democratic state Rep. Ryan Guillen said that granting anonymity was an “easy fix” to all the local and national fanfare that can plague those who win big sums of money and “provide much-needed peace and quiet to the lives of some lucky Texans.” In Georgia, a similar bill passed for those who win more than $250,000. In Arizona, winners of $600 or more can stay anonymous for 90 days after collecting their money.
In Delaware, anyone who wins any amount of money can remain anonymous; same goes for Ohio and South Carolina. Some states, including Colorado, Vermont, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, will award the money to a trust, from which the winner can then draw, a somewhat convoluted way to remain anonymous.
Those who oppose granting anonymity cite the need for transparency. In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill allowing winners in the state to remain anonymous, saying it would “undermine the transparency that provides taxpayers confidence in the integrity of the Lottery.”
The common argument is that publicizing the winners gives people confidence that the only winners aren’t just lotto insiders rigging the system, as happened in 2017: A former computer programmer of the Multi-State Lottery Association was convicted on charges of rigging; according to the Des Moines Register, he “wrote the code to allow him to predict the randomly drawn numbers of multimillion-dollar jackpots in as many as 17 states.”
The other common argument against privacy, which Christie also mentioned, is sales: Stores where winning tickets were bought can see massive bumps in sales afterward. If the information isn’t publicized, the excitement floats into the ether and ticket sales could slump.
Lottery winners fascinate us because of how accessible their luck seems — it’s not about a talent we don’t possess or a family history that we don’t benefit from; they just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and draw the right numbers. The attention (both positive and negative) increases in tandem with the amount of money on the line.
While the fear of harm may be some people’s motivation for seeking anonymity after winning the lottery, there is also an underlying principle that you should be able to filter what people know about you, something that has felt less and less achievable when everything is just an internet search away.
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Why privacy seems more important to lottery winners today.
Thinking of Going Off the Grid After Winning the Lottery? Not So Fast
Everyone dreams of it: having a small piece of paper with the right numbers printed on it and winning the life-changing $200 million, $700 million or $1 billion jackpot. But what happens after you win?
Many winners decide to remain anonymous — or at least try to — but that can be difficult when many states demand that the winners of large jackpots show their faces at news conferences.
At his own news conference in Madison, Wis., Manuel Franco, 24, who in a Powerball drawing last month won $768 million, the third-largest jackpot in United States lottery history, seemed to be trying not to divulge too much information about himself, perhaps to keep random family members from coming out of the woodwork. Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, he declined to say where he grew up, where he lived, what kind of car he drove or where he used to work. (He quit two days after winning.)
Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Texas, North Dakota and Ohio allow lottery winners to conceal their identities if the winnings exceed a certain dollar amount, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Other states, like New York, make it easy for winners to collect their prizes under the cover of an L.L.C. or an entity. But states like Wisconsin want winners to come forward to claim their prizes, although Wisconsin does not require them to appear at a news conference as Mr. Franco did.
After Mr. Franco’s $768 million win, “it seems a little ridiculous that there isn’t privacy when it comes to that,” Gary Tauchen, a Wisconsin state representative, said. “Certainly you have a lot of fourth and fifth cousins and it is just a situation when you’re under high stress.”
While Mr. Franco was answering questions about his lottery winnings as concisely as possible, Mr. Tauchen was introducing a bill seeking to ensure the privacy of lottery winners in Wisconsin.
“I know that it is one of those life-changing experiences when you need some time to adjust,” Mr. Tauchen said. “You don’t need the stress of other people putting pressure on you.”
And for jackpot winners like Mr. Franco, the pressure comes nearly immediately.
“For the next two weeks, people are going to be outside of his house,” Jason M. Kurland, a lawyer who has represented several winners of large lottery jackpots, said on Wednesday.
“I get those letters every week,” Mr. Kurland said, referring to the mail he receives intended for his clients. “They range from congratulatory letters to individuals having a tough time asking for handouts, to organizations looking for donations, to business men and women asking for investors.”
Mr. Kurland, who calls himself the Lottery Lawyer and represented the person in South Carolina who won the $1.54 billion Mega Millions jackpot last year, advises his clients to delete all their social media accounts before they claim their winnings. He also tells them to try to remove their address from public view as much as they can and to get new phone numbers. If there are children involved, he will hire security for the first couple of days.
Mr. Kurland tries to help his clients retain some privacy after they win, but if privacy is hard to achieve in 2019, anonymity is nearly impossible.
“It is very hard to participate in civil life and be anonymous,” Albert Gidari, the privacy director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, said on Wednesday. “You can’t buy a car in cash and avoid disclosing who you are because now car dealers are financial institutions,” Mr. Gidari said, adding that it was nearly impossible to transfer money in and out of the United States without disclosing who you are to the government.
“He can get a lot of lawyers and accountants and figure out how to move and hide a lot of that money at great risk to himself for not complying with government reporting,” Mr. Gidari said. “You can’t get very far, but you can get far enough to get some degree of obscurity, even if you can’t get anonymity.”
Last year the winner of a $560 million Powerball jackpot in New Hampshire took the state to court to retain her anonymity while claiming her prize. The woman’s lawyers argued that she would be accosted with requests for money, and the state argued that lottery winners must be disclosed to make sure that winners are not related to lottery employees and that winnings are distributed fairly. The court decided disclosing the winner’s name would be an invasion of privacy and allowed the woman to anonymously claim her winnings.
“You want to be able to enjoy this crazy amount of money you luckily won, but at the same time you want to keep your privacy, so it’s a balance,” Mr. Kurland said.
But going off the grid, setting up shop on the beach and enjoying the fruits of your ticket are not necessarily possible without informing the government.
“If you leave the country, it’s worse,” Mr. Gidari said, adding that leaving the country and failing to report assets in the United States and abroad could lead to losing those assets.
Some states allow the winners of large jackpots to remain anonymous, but is it ever possible to retain your privacy after a life-changing windfall?