How A Long Island Fortune Cookie Company Cost The New York Lottery Close To $19 Million

For those of us who can't afford a therapist, there's always the infinite wisdom of fortune cookies to resort to. The simple yet stoic little platitudes stenciled across those tiny slips of paper always have a solid bit of inspiration readily available to anyone hungry enough to reveal their mystic secrets. (It's also worth noting that the edible packing they come in — actually an American creation, not Chinese — always makes for a yummy snack.) However, nobody truly understood the potential value of fortune cookies until 2005, when a large number of consumers opened them to find an actual fortune inside — and not just a vague bit of one-size-fits-all prophecy.

According to The New York Times, 110 different individuals across the country received hundreds of thousands of dollars after finding winning Powerball lottery numbers written on fortune cookie slips. The payouts collectively came to a grand total of $19 million. Still, where there's a winner, you can pretty much guarantee that there's a loser somewhere nearby, and that loser turned out to be the Multi-State Lottery organization. 

And 110 in second place

The words "No good deed goes unpunished" have likely appeared in a fortune cookie somewhere at some point in time. In this case, the good deed was putting winning lottery numbers in too many different fortune cookies. The New York Times reports that all 110 individuals who won between $100,000 and $500,000 on March 30, 2005 officially came in second place in that year's lottery picking. How, you might ask, did that many people come in second place, when second place is reserved for only a few people?

"Something was wrong; it was out of the realm of possibility, so we suspected a great system error or a fraud," Charles Strutt, former director of the Multi-State Lottery association, told Reuters (via NBC News). "In the lottery business, you have to be naturally suspicious: Whenever we see a statistical aberration we check it out." Ultimately, lottery execs determined that the excess of winning numbers that had proliferated among 29 states came from fortune cookies, and those fortune cookies were traced back to their original source in Long Island, New York (via NBC News). 

Long Island's $19 million penance

Luckily, everybody who won by accident still got paid their due reward, but the official lottery reserve ($25 million) was nearly cleared out after everyone got their share of the pot. The trail of cookie crumbs eventually led to a factory in Long Island, New York run by Wonton Foods, which was packaging and distributing around 4 million fortune cookies a day at the time, as The New York Times reports. Okay, but what does that have to do with winning lottery numbers? Essentially, it was all chalked up to a simple mistake, albeit a mistake that carried a $19 million price tag on it. 

At first, Derrick Wong, a representative of Wonton Foods, was overjoyed to hear that his company had managed to change so many lives for the better. "That's very nice, 110 people won the lottery from the numbers," he shared (per The New York Times). However, after realizing that the factory's method for choosing the numbers was rather hazardous and nearly bankrupted the New York lottery for good, he and his team resolved that some much needed changes were in store. "We're now going to go to use a computer (to pick the numbers) because it's more efficient," Wong said. "Using the computer reduces the chances of a repeat combination and we don't want that to happen" (via NBC News).