Do all lottery winners wind up broke? Despite the popular myth, studies that purport to prove that winning the lottery ruins your life aren’t convincing, often relying on small or distorted samples. Some people do suffer after hitting the jackpot: more than a few people have been gruesomely murdered for their money, others have succumbed to drugs or suicide, and some just go bankrupt after making unwise investments or spending too lavishly on themselves, family, and friends.
In one key area—maintaining the anonymity of winners—states can do more. The wealthy are adept at protecting their privacy. More than half of New York’s super-luxury apartment buyers make their purchases through shell corporations, shielding their identity from the public. Adult children of the wealthy may survive on the proceeds of a trust, but most won’t advertise that their grandfather left them $40 million, unless they want to invite solicitation and harassment.
By contrast, New York State lottery winners can’t claim their prize without participating in a press conference that unveils their identity, photo, and hometown. The most persuasive justification for this exposure is to maintain public faith that the lottery awards money to real people, not insiders; the perpetrator of the biggest lottery fraud in history went to great lengths to try to cash one of his tickets, for an Iowa game, anonymously, and was caught in the attempt.
The more obvious reason is marketing. New York’s “winner’s wall” features the types of stories that get people to play the lottery or to keep playing. Leelawatie Pittam “almost didn’t buy her $3,000,000 winning 50X the Money scratch-off ticket,” the lottery enthuses. “I bought four 50X the Money tickets to start,” Pittam says. “There was a ticket left on the roll, so I decided to spend the extra $10 and buy it. That’s the one that turned out to be the winner.” Seeing average Joes and Janes cash in gives potential players the sense that they could do the same.
Now, though, a lottery winner has come forward with a desire to maintain his anonymity. A 24-year-old Bronx man, the father of a young child, is a prime candidate for losing his winnings to violence, swindles, or needy family and friends. He’s an unemployed food-service worker. He’s not financially astute; he doesn’t even have a bank account, according to a New York Post exclusive. He lives in the neighborhood where he grew up, where “everybody knows me,” he told the Post’s Julia Marsh. “All these people would know and I’m afraid they might come for me. . . . Everybody who knows me knows I’m too nice.”
He appears to have good reasons for not advertising his good fortune. He has engaged an attorney to negotiate with—or sue—the state lottery to set up a trust so that he can claim his winnings while keeping his identity a secret, just as the wealthy do. There is some precedent: in March, a New Hampshire judge ruled that a woman could claim a $560 million lottery award anonymously. The situations differ—New Hampshire allows trusts to claim tickets, but the woman had not realized this before signing her ticket with her name—the argument that making oneself public as a lottery winner invites predators and scammers holds up in both cases.
It’s true that all New York lottery tickets come with fine print warning players of their obligation to make themselves known to claim any prize of $1 million or more. Yet in other instances, state and local governments have protected people from predatory fine print. The lottery can hardly expect that the people who line up in convenience stores to buy their tickets are going to consult an attorney over the contractual agreement they’re entering into before forking over a few bucks.
The lottery counts on its winners to behave as many of its losers do: in a financially unsound way. Without winners willing to trumpet the fact that they’re now millionaires, the games lose a key tool in gaining new customers or in encouraging existing customers to spend more. There’s something wrong, though, about forcing a man trying to hold onto his windfall to forego a tool that the wealthy regularly use to protect themselves from importuning friends and neighbors. A tale of two cities, indeed.