Though the old expression claims "it's better to be lucky than good," that's definitely not true when it comes to lottery fraud -- and one Minnesota clerk learned that after he found a way to beat the odds.
Most people probably haven't heard of "microscratching," but it's essentially the scratch-off equivalent of counting cards. While most people can't wait to scratch off every square inch of their favorite lotto ticket, a technique preferred by cheaters can show if a ticket is a winner or loser just by scratching away three tiny numbers.
"He was so good at microscratching that -- literally -- to the naked eye, you cannot determine that there's been any alteration of the game ticket," said Hennepin County Prosecutor Emery Adoradio.
Prosecutors say 34-year-old Mourad Zahi, a convenience store clerk in Hopkins, used the technique to sell losing tickets and keep the winners after taking a sneak peak.
Normally, clerks scan a bar code to confirm if the ticket is a winner -- but there is also a back up code printed behind the scratch off area.
"If it wasn't a winner, he would then sell it to someone else who would come in and buy that losing ticket," Adoradio said.
Lottery officials began investigating Zahi after he sold someone a winning ticket when the prize was already claimed. They also found a large number of attempts to manually validate the same ticket.
"Once they got the tickets outside the store, they were able to look -- using a microscope -- to see that, in fact, those tickets had been microscratched."
After a winning streak that spanned several months, Zahi's luck ran out. He's now charged with five felony counts of cheating and lottery fraud. He was also promptly fired.
Microscratching is so rare, state gambling investigators say they only see a few cases a year because it's usually only done by someone with access to state computers can verify the winning tickets -- like Zahi.
The chief of security for the Minnesota State Lottery says there is usually no reason to be suspicious of where you buy your lottery ticket, but he said you can always ask for a new ticket if there is any doubt.
"When you're buying a scratch ticket, look it over," Doug Wills recommended. "If there are any scratches on there that seem to be out of the ordinary, don't take it. Tell them, 'This ticket doesn't look good. I'd prefer to have another ticket,' and then let us know."