'The curse of the lottery': Why a multimillion-dollar jackpot winner is fighting to keep identity private

While millions of people play the lottery in hopes of that big payoff, a New Hampshire jackpot winner is trying to convince a court that winning is not all it's cracked up to be if you have to tell the world about it.

Lawyer of New Hampshire woman argues she is potential target for harassment, scams, even murder

While millions of lottery players continue to play in hopes of that big payoff, the case of a New Hampshire woman who won $560 million but wants to remain anonymous demonstrates that winning the jackpot can come with its own set of challenges. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A New Hampshire woman who won a $560-million US jackpot in the Powerball lottery is fighting to remain anonymous because she could be a potential target for scams, harassment, threats, violence — and murder.

This, at least, is the argument being made by her lawyers against the New Hampshire Lottery Commission, which insists that the woman, known as Jane Doe, must reveal her identity in order to collect her prize.

The battle has gone to the state's Supreme Court, where the woman's legal team has argued she should not be forced to reveal her identity, because she is now "part of a small demographic which has been historically victimized by the unscrupulous with life-threatening consequences."

"There are countless stories of other lottery winners who have suffered significantly after receiving their money, many of which could have been avoided if the winners' identities had not been provided," the Doe complaint reads.

When a lottery company publishes the name of a big jackpot winner, there are "many different combinations [of things] that could happen to you," her lawyer, Bill Shaheen, told CBC. "Why do it?"

U.S. lawyer William Shaheen argues his client's safety is at risk after she won a $560-million Powerball jackpot. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

While millions of lottery players continue to participate in hopes of that big payoff, Jane Doe's case demonstrates that winning can come with its own set of challenges, concerns and stresses.

Hitting the jackpot does not always lead to a new happy life.

'Suffered significantly'

In the U.S., only a handful of states allow the winners of jackpots to remain anonymous by law. In Canada, each province has its own lottery rules, but they're generally similar. For example, a B.C. couple who won $50 million fought unsuccessfully to keep their identities a secret.

The Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) publishes the town or city of residence of all winners of $1,000 or more. If it's a $10,000 win, the winner's picture is taken as well.

But those news conferences where a giant cheque is presented to a big jackpot winner? They are not mandatory.

"We love it when they want to share their story, what they might do with the money, how they found out they won, but that is optional," said Dita Kuhtey, a spokesperson for the OLG.

New York-based attorney Jason Kurland — known as "The Lottery Lawyer" for the number of lottery-winner clients he has represented — said he sympathizes with those who would like to stay anonymous.

"I see these winners, they are petrified. When you win that amount of money, it's overwhelming," said Kurland. "And the last thing you want is everyone knocking down your door."

Lottery horror stories

In arguing the case for privacy, Doe's complaint cites a number of horror stories. It points to the case of a 2016 winner in Georgia who won a relatively small jackpot of $434,000 US. She was murdered by an armed gunman who shot through her door, demanding money.

The argument also references a $30-million US Florida lottery winner who was murdered in 2009 by a woman posing as a financial advisor.

Ammand, Eric and Deidrich Mayrhofer of Langley, B.C., tried to keep their identities private after winning the $50-million Lotto Max prize in April 2014. (BCLC)

As well, the complaint refers to thefts, swindles and threats of a handful of other winners. 

Some have argued that apart from having to reveal their identity, many people are just not prepared to handle the sudden influx of cash.

"It's just upheaval that they're not ready for," said Don McNay, a financial consultant and the author of Life Lessons from the Lotteryin an interview with Time magazine in 2016. 

"It's the curse of the lottery, because it made their lives worse instead of improving them."

Research on the well-being of individuals after a win seems to provide mixed results, and finding winners willing to provide financial information is challenging.

Still, stories of lottery wins gone wrong abound, including the case of West Virginia man Jack Whittaker, who won $315 million US in 2002. He later said he was beset by a number of legal problems and personal tragedies, including the breakup of his marriage and the death of his drug-addicted granddaughter.

"I think if you have something, there's always someone else that wants it," Whittaker told ABC News in 2007. "I wish I'd torn that ticket up." 

After Jack Whittaker won a record $314.9-million US Powerball jackpot, his wife left him and his drug-addicted granddaughter died. (Jeff Gentner/AP)

Then there's Hamilton's Sharon Tirabassi, who, according to the Hamilton Spectator, spent her $10.5 million winnings on expensive clothes, trips and parties. She ended up depleting her winnings and living paycheque to paycheque with a part-time job.

'Not substantiated'

But not all agree with the doom-and-gloom scenarios, especially the lottery corporations.

In its response to Jane Doe, the New Hampshire Lottery Commission dismissed her security concerns as "not substantiated" and "inconsistent" with the commission's experience dealing with jackpot winners.

In fact, the lottery corporations believe they have a strong case to make for why winners' identities should be revealed. 

The New Hampshire Lottery Commission argued that the practice ensures transparency in a public lottery and confirmation that the winners are actual people and picked at random.

OLG's Kuhtey said there are cases when exceptions are made, such as when there's a specific, known threat to a winner's safety, issues of domestic violence or the winner is an undercover law enforcement officer. 

But Shaheen said he believes the lotteries have other motives to identify the winners.

In Ontario, a lottery winner's name, picture and place of residence must be published, but news conferences such as this are optional. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

"I think the real reason is they like the publicity," he said. But what lottery corporations expose winners to, "when you put it on a scale, is just unbelievable."

Kurland acknowledged that identifying winners is a way to dispel the notion that the games are rigged. But he said the companies are also trying to sell as many tickets as possible — and being able to show that an average person can win is the best marketing, he said.

"It adds a face to the story rather than just saying 'Oh, you're an anonymous person.' It makes more people buy tickets."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.