Rigging the lottery

On December 29, 2010, Eddie Tipton won US$14.3 million from Hot Lotto. In 2015 he went to jail for it. Tipton had hacked the lottery’s random number generator.

USB Drive
Evan-Amos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The December 29, 2010, prize draw from Hot Lotto (a multi-state lottery in the United States) was a cool US$14.3 million, but no-one claimed it for nearly a year. The month before the deadline, a series of suspicious phone calls from a shell company based in Belize tried to claim the money. This company walked away empty-handed because they would not identify who controlled them or who had purchased the ticket.

There was a good reason for this secrecy. The actual purchaser of the ticket was Eddie Raymond Tipton. He would not identify himself for two reasons:

  1. He was an employee of the Multi-State Lottery Association, who ran the Hot Lotto lottery.
  2. He had rigged the draw.

Tipton was Hot Lotto’s information security director, and had used that position to gain access to the lottery’s random number generator. The computer that selected the winning numbers was kept very secure: it was not connected to the Internet, it was sealed within four glass walls and kept under constant surveillance, and it could only be accessed by two people at a time. Yup, some real Mission Impossible level security here.

It looks like Tipton first disabled the security camera (setting it to record just one second each minute) and then, under cover of adjusting the computer’s daylight savings settings plugged a USB drive into the lottery computer. This drive installed a rootkit into that computer which subtly affected the random number generation process. The change was a small one: on three specific days of the year, Tipton would know exactly which numbers were going to be drawn.

For obvious reasons it is illegal for any employee of a lottery organisation to buy tickets in their lottery. Tipton had to find a way to funnel the ticket through a third party. When his shell company attempts fell through, suspicions began to mount. Security camera footage – this time of the ticket purchase itself – showed a man who looked an awful lot like Tipton. In 2015, he was arrested and charged with fraud.

Tipton was found guilty and sent to jail; later that same year evidence was found of several earlier successful crimes. Tipton, friends, and relatives had together “won” more than two and a half million dollars from three other lottery draws. They all ended up in jail, of course.

(End note: the only honest way I’ve heard to increase your winnings in the lottery is this: pick numbers higher than 31. This won’t increase your chances of winning, but it may just increase the amount you win if you do. Many people use their birthdays when choosing numbers, so when the numbers 1 to 31 come up there may be more winners. More winners means a smaller share of the prize to each one. If you win with numbers above 31, you may just be sharing the prize with fewer people – and so winning more money. I have no idea if this technique actually works in practice because I don’t buy lottery tickets, but it’s a neat idea, and you probably won’t go to jail for trying it.)

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