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Pomona nurse and colleagues tricked in Powerball hoax

When a Pomona nurse received a text from her son with a picture of a winning Powerball ticket after Wednesday’s $1.6-billion drawing, she and her co-workers erupted with joy.

Word spread quickly and her employer’s public relations team began promoting the story to reporters. The only problem: The ticket was doctored.

While California Lottery officials quickly determined it was fake -- it carried the wrong vendor identification -- the horse was already out of the barn. Major media outlets had run with the story.

The woman’s family was distraught.

“It’s too embarrassing,” the nurse’s daughter told a reporter, asking that her name not be used to avoid bringing more attention to her family. “Everyone is congratulating us.”

California Lottery officials still don’t know who bought a winning Powerball jackpot ticket worth $528 million before taxes at a Chino Hills 7-Eleven. But thanks to photo editing software and the biggest jackpot in U.S. lottery history, fake claims proliferated this week, gaining attention for a few publicity seekers and breaking some hearts along the way.

“People can put together some pretty elaborate things,” said California Lottery spokesman Alex Traverso. “I never would’ve thought I’d spend half my day trying to shoot down all these crazy stories.”

Three tickets matched Wednesday's winning Powerball numbers -- one in Florida, one in Tennessee and the one purchased in Chino Hills. 

Lottery officials say they will not know who the California winner is until that person comes to a lottery office to claim his or her prize. They aren't investigating claims of individuals who go online to profess that they've won, Traverso said. A Tennessee couple was verified on Friday to have won the jackpot in that state, according to reports. 

The spread of fake stories had gotten so out of hand that on Friday lottery officials issued a news release advising media “to proceed with caution and a degree of skepticism when it comes to any report of someone in possession of the winning ticket.”

When a verified winner did come forward, lottery officials would issue a news release with the winner’s name, which is public information, the release said.

Dubious stories of big winners began flying around almost as soon as the winning numbers were announced.

In the minutes after the drawing, a well-known skateboarder posted his “winning” ticket on Instagram. Another man held an impromptu news conference in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven, where the ticket was sold, claiming to be the winner.

Then there was the poor nurse in Pomona.

On Thursday, a spokeswoman for a group of California healthcare facilities began calling reporters to say that one of their employees was the winner -- possibly thanks to the company’s generous chief executive buying thousands of tickets for his employees and patients.

“I couldn’t be happier for her,” David Levy, an administrator at Park Avenue Healthcare & Wellness Centre in Pomona, told The Times on Thursday. “She’s got a big family, this is a beautiful story.”

But in the end, Levy, the spokeswoman, the chief executive, her co-workers and even the nurse herself had all fallen for a prank.

The nurse’s son had snapped a picture of a ticket on Facebook and sent it to his mother, her daughter said.

“I feel like quitting,” the daughter said. She works alongside her mother at the healthcare center.

Traverso said the best way lottery officials have to spot fakes on social media is the number sequence at the bottom of the ticket, just above the bar code. That identifies the store where the ticket was sold, among other things.

While doctored lottery tickets have been around for years, the fervor generated by the prospect of a $1.6-billion win seemed to have given hoaxers a boost.

“A lot of what we’re seeing is someone having their moment in the sun,” Traverso said. “But it hasn’t risen to this level before because everyone right now is trying to figure out who this winner is. The magnifying glass isn’t usually there when it’s a smaller amount.”

Erik Bragg, the skateboarder whose photo of a winning ticket was quickly met with skepticism even as it spread widely on social media Wednesday night, said he knew the story would have legs.

“Biggest jackpot in history? overnight billionaire? posting a photo of yourself with the winning ticket 1 minute after the numbers are called? figured my photo would go viral,” he wrote in an email.

He declined to say any more, since the episode had landed him a spot on TV.

He’d be telling his story exclusively on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” next week, he said.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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