A Texas family learned the hard way that you don’t try to game the Masters ticket lottery. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Getting tickets for the Masters is something of a tradition unlike any other, in that your chances of getting them at face value are decidedly slim. There’s a waiting list for annual full-tournament badges, as the tickets are known, but the tournament hasn’t accepted any new names since 2000. There’s also an online lottery for a limited number of single-day tickets, but based on the disappointment lodged on social media every July — when the lucky few are selected for the next year’s tournament via random drawing — your chances of success seem about as good as winning the actual lottery.

That leaves the secondary market — even if reselling tickets is discouraged by Augusta National officials — and prices can skyrocket. Just before this year’s tournament in April, SeatGeek reported that the average ticket price for a tournament day had hit $2,484, up 15 percent from 2018.

One family in Texas caught on to this and went to great, albeit illegal, lengths to secure Masters tickets via the online lottery and then sell them at a great profit. According to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of Georgia, the four family members used names and addresses from a bulk mailing list they purchased to create multiple fraudulent accounts with the Masters online lottery, going so far as to create fake identification documents — driver’s licenses, utility bills and credit card statements — to persuade Augusta National to change the winners’ mailing addresses.

Once the family members obtained the tickets, they were resold at a substantial profit. (Badges obtained through the lottery cost just $115 for each daily round.) According to charging documents, the scheme lasted from 2013 to 2017.

The four family members — Stephen Michael Freeman of Katy, Tex.; his parents, Steven Lee Freeman and Diane Freeman of Helotes, Tex.; and his sister, Christine Oliverson of San Antonio — all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud charges, the U.S. attorney’s office announced Monday. As part of the plea deal, Stephen Freeman agreed to a sentence of 36 months in federal prison and paid $157,493.70 in restitution, while his parents agreed to pay restitution of $59,000 and probably will be given probation, along with Oliverson. (A judge has to approve the sentences and could alter them.)

“These profiteering con artists thought they had succeeded in hijacking the Augusta National’s generous ticket lottery system to satisfy their own greed,” Bobby L. Christine, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, said in a news release announcing the guilty pleas. “The vigilance of the Augusta National staff and the investigative acumen of the FBI ferreted out the fraud, ensuring justice is served to these cheats for the federal crimes they committed.”

According to Augusta National’s website, only one application per address is accepted in the online lottery. But Freeman and his family members apparently were successful in persuading the club’s ticket officials to mail tickets to the fraudulent addresses after providing phony identification documents. If that didn’t work, “one or more of the defendants would visit the recipient’s home to persuade them, sometimes with modest payment, to turn over the tickets by claiming they had been sent to the wrong address by mistake,” the news release said.

Charles McKee III, an FBI agent, told the Savannah Morning News that there were 4 million emails involved with the plot, which Augusta National reported to the FBI in October. He estimated that although the family members were not able to obtain all of the 1,130 tickets it “won” through the lottery, it still walked away with a $530,000 profit.

“This scheme was designed to profit from the resale of tickets, but in the process, it also would have denied legitimate citizens a fair chance to obtain tickets to a prestigious golf tournament,” Chris Hacker, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Atlanta office, said in the news release. “We hope that this case sends a message that the FBI will make it a priority to investigate these cases, and if you get caught, you will pay the price.”

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