Hundreds of genes show aberrant DNA hypermethylation in cancer, yet little is known about the causes of this hypermethylation. We identified RIL as a frequent methylation target in cancer. In search for factors that influence RIL hypermethylation, we found a 12-bp polymorphic sequence around its transcription start site that creates a long allele. Pyrosequencing of homozygous tumors revealed a 2.1-fold higher methylation for the short alleles (P<0.001). Bisulfite sequencing of cancers heterozygous for RIL showed that the short alleles are 3.1-fold more methylated than the long (P<0.001). The comparison of expression levels between unmethylated long and short EBV-transformed cell lines showed no difference in expression in vivo. Electrophorectic mobility shift assay showed that the inserted region of the long allele binds Sp1 and Sp3 transcription factors, a binding that is absent in the short allele. Transient transfection of RIL allele-specific transgenes showed no effects of the additional Sp1 site on transcription early on. However, stable transfection of methylation-seeded constructs showed gradually decreasing transcription levels from the short allele with eventual spreading of de novo methylation. In contrast, the long allele showed stable levels of expression over time as measured by luciferase and approximately 2-3-fold lower levels of methylation by bisulfite sequencing (P<0.001), suggesting that the polymorphic Sp1 site protects against time-dependent silencing. Our finding demonstrates that, in some genes, hypermethylation in cancer is dictated by protein-DNA interactions at the promoters and provides a novel mechanism by which genetic polymorphisms can influence an epigenetic state.