Nebraska Lottery officials are trying to get over a holiday headache.
In September, they canceled the Holiday Bonus Bucks scratch-off game within two hours of it opening because too many players seemed to be winning large prizes.
“Immediately we started getting reports that people were turning in tickets that weren’t actually winners,” said Neil Watson, a Nebraska Lottery spokesman.
The snafu resulted from a misprint by International Game Technology, the company that produced the $5 Holiday Bonus Bucks cards as well as other scratch-off lotto tickets for the Nebraska Lottery. The London-based company is one of a handful that produce the scratch-off tickets, which are complicated to manufacture.
It’s the first time since 2010 that a game has been suspended because of a printing error, Watson said. He called it “an isolated incident” and said no other scratch-off games have been affected.
The game started Sept. 24 and was deactivated the same day. Lottery officials picked up unsold tickets from across the state and found that 405 already had been sold, including 80 in Omaha and Sarpy County.
The Lottery is asking anyone who purchased a Holiday Bonus Bucks card to send it in, following the instructions on the back of the card. Those who send them in will receive Lottery scratch coupons as compensation. Tickets should be returned by March 24, 2019.
So far, Watson said, 150 tickets have been returned to Nebraska Lottery headquarters. Of those, 80 appeared to be winners because of inaccurately printed symbols, and 52 others appeared to win larger prizes than the actual ones tied to the cards.
Watson said none of the tickets that were sold actually represented large prizes.
“We’ve processed all the tickets we’ve received so far,” he said. “We wanted to be sure that players understand what we were doing, and we followed the law,” Watson said.
Under state law, the Nebraska Lottery isn’t legally obligated to pay winnings that are the result of a misprint or error.
Scratch-off tickets like Holiday Bonus Bucks typically match symbols on one part of the card with a prize on another part of the card. They are exposed by scraping off an opaque coating with the edge of a coin.
However, it’s not necessary to do all that scratching. Lottery retailers can either scan a bar code or plug in a serial number and match it against a computerized list of cards that are predetermined to be winners.
In the Holiday Bonus Bucks contest, players were asked to scratch off a set of 14 symbols and match them with rows of holiday-themed symbols. If the symbols matched an entire horizontal row, then the card was a winner and the player could claim a corresponding prize.
Because of the misprint, the play grids and imaged symbols were mismatched. As a result, Watson said, every card showed a possible $40,000 prize. The total number of cards with the top prize was supposed to be only three, and the odds of winning 120,000-to-1.
In a statement released through the Nebraska Lottery, the company said the mistake occurred because of a failure in the process of “image synchronization.” That meant some image symbols appeared in the wrong grids and, in some cases, showed cards winning that weren’t part of the pre-programmed prize structure.
Watson said the error was not detectable until the cards were purchased by customers and redeemed.
“It’s not something you can see,” he said.
Keith Miller, a law professor at Drake University who specializes in gaming law, said it’s critical for lottery officials to act quickly and openly in order to preserve confidence in lottery games.
“With lotteries, the need for transparency is important. The public has a right to see what went wrong,” Miller said. “If people feel like it’s rigged, they won’t play.”
Watson declined to say how much the Holiday Bonus Bucks mishap has cost, but he said lottery officials are negotiating over damages. International Game Technology has produced lotto games for the Nebraska Lottery since 2011, and their contract continues through 2022.
“It’s distressing to them, and it’s distressing to us,” Watson said.