TORONTO - Questionable insider wins and lottery retailers stealing jackpots outright have been a black eye for Ontario’s gaming corporation but other jurisdictions seem to have found the golden ticket to secure gaming _ membership cards.

Lottery organizations in Australia, Norway and Finland say membership cards allow each ticket to be traced back to one person or group, ensuring winners always get paid even if their ticket is lost. Ticket buyers get an electronic card to use at the time of purchase. Any small prizes are then directly deposited into a winner’s bank account.

A spokesman for Norwegian lottery Norsk Tipping says cards eliminate the potential for retailer thefts and frauds like those that have plagued the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. in recent years. “If there were a similar system there (in Ontario), you wouldn’t have these problems at all,” says spokesman Magne Vikoren, explaining he hasn’t heard of any cases of retailer theft in his country. He says one of the card’s best features is that if you win a jackpot, you don’t have to scramble to call the lottery office_ the lottery office calls you.

In Norway, that threshold is 1 million Kroner, the equivalent of about CDN $173,000. The Finnish lottery calls winners of $140,000 or more.

“Although they can just check their card the same evening, we still contact them, just to tell them that it’s true, and when the money will be transferred to their bank account,” says Vikoren.

Jan Stewart, CEO of Lotterywest in Western Australia, says card members in her area can report a ticket loss, and Lotterywest will block anyone else from making a claim at a lottery retailer.

She says “many, many” people have ensured their prizes this way. “You can technically buy a ticket after you’ve used your player’s card and then tear up the ticket and you’re absolutely perfectly safe because nobody can use your ticket and you’ll get paid,” she says. Ontario Lottery and Gaming says it is always looking for ways to improve player protection, but needs to share more information with lotteries around the world before putting in a membership program.

“Before we would change anything we would need to closely examine all the pros and cons, costs, etc. associated with these systems,” OLG spokesman Tony Bitonti says in an email.

“We have 9,000 terminals across the province that would need major updating.”

Currently, the OLG has no way of knowing the identity of a buyer, unless they use subscription ticket service Lotto Advance, says Bitonti, adding that the corporation calls subscribers if they win $1,000 or more.

Some lottery buyers may prefer to remain anonymous, he adds.

Officials in Australia and Norway say they started using membership cards 18 years ago, and no longer have statistics on how much their start-up costs were. Vikoren admitted it was “not quite cheap,” to set up, and Stewart says the system is inexpensive to maintain.

Operating costs are covered by a one-time $10 membership fee in Western Australia, and a $3 annual fee in Norway. In Finland, the card, which has been around for four years, is free.<

Finnish lottery spokesman Miikka Kimari says officials there want to expand the program to scratch tickets, and reminds people that if there’s a dispute, the lottery can’t help them if they didn’t swipe their cards.

“Of course there has been all kinds of trying, my dog ate my ticket and that kind of thing, but the fact is that if you lose your ticket, it’s too bad for you, we can’t do anything,” he says.

Membership cards also provide other features like letting users save their favourite numbers, and in Norway, keeping underage buyers or gambling addicts away.

Vikoren says that membership cards also help thwart crime. It was Norway’s justice department that pushed the lottery to make the membership system mandatory last year to combat money laundering.

The OLG has seen its fair share of problems.

The Ontario government called in police three years ago after the province’s ombudsman accused lottery retailers of collecting millions of dollars in “dishonest”’ winnings.

The scandals led to criminal charges and changes, including requiring winners to sign tickets before handing them over to store clerks, and banning lottery retailers from buying tickets in their own stores.

In June, convenience store owner Hafiz Malik was sentenced to one year in jail for stealing and claiming a $5.7-million prize.

Last month a father and son who worked at Burlington, Ont., store were charged, along with another family member, with stealing a $12.5-million Super 7 jackpot in 2003. The allegations have not been tested in court.

Vikoren says that for membership cards to ensure consumer protection, people need to keep their card safe.

“It’s like a credit card. You get fraud if you deliver it to someone else and also give away your PIN code,” he says.

“You can’t just fool around with it because there’s some money involved here.”