Hi-tech scam artists target casinos around the world in a never-ending game of cat and mouse
From the Print Edition:
George Lopez, January/February 2010
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"Casinos in California lack financial motivations [to protect the games]," says Ko, explaining that banking operators pay large sums to back the games and make a ton even when they do get cheated. "That's a big problem, and it can create situations where dishonest people get away with a lot. For them, some California card rooms and some Indian casinos [that can easily operate with fairly fluid oversight as well] are best. A lot of the big cheating teams don't bother with Las Vegas. Why would they need to?"
According to an anonymous source with connections to a popular card room near San Francisco, a classic high-tech scam unfolded there. Pai Gow Poker tiles (which are favored over cards by serious Chinese players) were marked with infrared ink. A cheater at the table aimed a cell phone-customized with camera and infrared filter, though he could have just as easily worn specially equipped glasses or contacts-at the tiles and knew precisely what he would be dealt and which tiles the dealer held.
The criminals involved in this scam pulled down $1 million in a single day, and it was very much an inside job. "A floor man, who was involved with the group, felt remorseful," the source tells me. "He spoke with the casino's owner and revealed everything. Word filtered to the group that was banking the game [and, ultimately, being ripped off]. But they were already making an awful lot of money and, as a result, were eager to avoid upsetting the casino and risking their concession. So they opted not to press charges. As is too often the case in California, the cheating team got away with it."
Conventional wisdom holds that the most destructive cheating scams require cooperation from inside. However, according to Elija Zuniga, who now works privately as a casino consultant but used to focus on gambling as a special agent with the California Department of Justice, a nervy, coordinated team can do a lot of damage on its own. "I've seen guys switch in shoes rigged with mirrors [that reveal cards as they are dealt] or dice cups containing magnetized dice," says Zuniga, acknowledging that such slight of hand may sound daunting but that, in the moment, it's doable for a well-oiled group. "In considering this, you have to imagine a table full of bettors and back bettors [the practice of betting on someone else's play is allowed in California]. So you've got a total of 25 bettors at the table, five of whom are in on the scam. They're leaning in, asking questions, tipping, discussing the outcome of the last hand, speaking in different languages. You wouldn't be able to handle it. I've seen this move on tape. At its best, it is artful and beautifully done. These guys can give lessons to the CIA."
High-tech cheating may be most easily pulled off in California, but it is by no means limited to that state. In fact, when it comes to rigging slot machines, Las Vegas is a prime target.
During past decades one-armed bandits were overwhelmed with so-called light wands, which are basically wires topped off by tiny lights on the end. These would get worked in through the compartment from which payoffs get retrieved. Shining brightly, the light tricked the payout mechanisms-which were triggered with flashes of light from inside the machine-into continually releasing money.
In another instance, a particularly ingenious cheater came up with a computer chip that would make machines release money on his terms. This particular scam artist, a rogue gaming agent, would open up a machine and swap out its legitimate chip for the new one. He'd have it programmed to make a massive payout only after coins were inserted in a certain pattern-say two coins, then five, then one, then three, etc.-that square players would be unlikely to inadvertently mimic. "With the chip in there, they were set," explains Tommy Carmichael, inventor of the light wand, one of the world's more notorious slot cheats, and today a lighting engineer with his own company, Knight Lighting, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "They could walk away from the machine and have it pay out days or even a week later. At that point, after they were clearly not associated with the machine, a team member would come in, insert coins in the proper order and look shocked as the slot machine hit a jackpot."
According to Carmichael, the scam could still work today-so long as you had a gaming agent pulling it off. Otherwise, current slot machine security measures (which include computer chips encased in plastic that will rouse suspicion if broken) make it a lot more difficult.
Don't worry, though. The high-tech cheaters have come up with something else. According to a well-placed source from inside that world, "When you insert a bill into a slot machine, it reads the denomination based on a magnetic strip going down one-quarter of the bill. This prevents counterfeiting. But the way you get around it is by designing a metal coil that mimics the magnetic field of a $100 bill. You place it on the surface of a $1 bill and pull the coil out as soon as the machine reads it and sucks down the bill. Now you've got $100 worth of play for just $1"
A similar, albeit grayer-area, move can be pulled off at the tables of casinos that have become reliant on high denomination chips implanted with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) capabilities. The idea is that not only can the casino know who has won certain chips (and thereby thwart advantage players from having confederates cashing out for them), but the RFID technology is also used to track play and recognize comps that a gambler would be entitled to.
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