Casino security experts “dumbfounded” over $1 million Las Vegas theft and other scams in 2023

June 27, 2023 8:53 PM
Photo: Cashier scam
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports
June 27, 2023 8:53 PM
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports

In a scenario far removed from the Hollywood-style robbery in the movie Ocean’s Eleven, industry security experts around the country are astonished that a scammer posing as a casino owner could have stolen more than $1 million from Circa Las Vegas. They also warned about similar attempts on the West Coast.

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KLAS-TV in Las Vegas broke the story Monday that a man claiming to be a Circa owner (Derek Stevens is the CEO, and owner along with his brother Greg) convinced a casino-cage employee to distribute several payments that totaled $1.17 million for fire-safety equipment. The case led to the arrest of 23-year-old Erik Gutierrez on theft charges, the station reported.

Casino-security consultant Willy Allison, who hosts the annual World Game Protection Conference, sent out a notice to U.S. casino-surveillance directors, who were not only flabbergasted, but worried also it could happen to them.

“An employee in the cage can walk out with $300,000, meet a guy she doesn’t know, and give him the cash? As an ex-surveillance guy who lives and breathes internal controls and procedures, I say there are a lot of gaps to fill in. From the outside, you say, “How can that happen?”

The KLAS-TV story reported that someone contacted the casino cage claiming to be the owner and seeking cash. The cage supervisor separated the money into four installments of $314,000, $350,000, $500,000, and three smaller deposits, then handed it over to a person at different off-site locations, according to the report citing court documents.

The employee believed she was on the phone with the hotel’s owner, texting with her manager, and meeting with the owner’s attorney. Las Vegas Metro Police Department detectives found $850,000 of the money in an area home after tracking the vehicle involved in the theft, according to the report. Some $314,000 remains missing.

Without providing any details, the story said the suspect faces a similar charge in Mesquite.

Circa released a media statement from Derek Stevens on the incident to CDC Gaming Reports.“Although I love a good PR story, this isn’t one of them. Circa is cooperating with the Metropolitan Police Department in this investigation. We greatly appreciate their efforts to date and cannot comment further due to an ongoing investigation.”

Metro circulated a memo to casinos that warned of a scam that could affect their cashier operations. It said scammers are contacting cages, impersonating casino executives, and asking for cash payments off site, because the property needs to rectify a problem or lose its license and cost employees their jobs.

The calls have been occurring for the past five months, but there’s been an uptick in recent weeks, the memo said.

“Scammers have been successful, resulting in millions of dollars being taken,” the memo said. “The scheme is not only affecting Las Vegas, but has been occurring in other places throughout the country where casinos are located.”

In March, $500,000 was reported stolen from Monarch Casino in Black Hawk, the largest casino heist in Colorado history. In that scam, Juan Gutierrez-Zambrano, 31, was charged with theft of $100,000 to $1 million, according to news reports. A casino cashier was also arrested after telling authorities she took 10 bricks of $50,000 from the vault and delivered the money to someone in a hospital parking lot. She originally told authorities the money needed to be taken to an attorney or the casino would breach its contract.

Allison said that’s not the only incident he’s aware of, citing similar scenarios involving two casinos in the Pacific Northwest in January that were thwarted without any money being lost. Those incidents haven’t been publicly reported.

“They didn’t get away with it up there, because (the casinos) are more savvy,” said Allison, who learned about it only after the Monarch heist triggered consternation in the casino-surveillance industry. “Everyone blew up on that. They were saying, ‘Oh my God. How could this happen?’ That’s when we all started talking.”

Based on the Metro Police memo he read mentioning millions of dollars being taken, Allison said there could be incidents in around southern Nevada that haven’t been made public.

Since the Circa report, Allison said he sent a survey to surveillance directors who were unanimous about how this can’t and shouldn’t happen.

“Cash transportation from the cage requires a security escort and surveillance is advised,” Allison said of the consensus. “It’s just not normal for a cage employee to take out cash without letting security or surveillance know.”

Allison said that since the Las Vegas case was similar to the one in Colorado, he raised the issue of whether there might be a connection to the thefts, rather than their being copycats, but he’s uncertain.

The thefts could be related to another concern in the industry that artificial intelligence can be used to mimic voices of casino executives and create confusion. In March, the Federal Trade Commission put out a general alert about an increase in scams involving cloning people’s voices.

“If they can get 20 seconds of Derek Stevens  voice, which is very easy to do, they could call a staff member using his voice,” Allison said. “When I read the report, it seemed to me she believed it was Derek Stevens, or Greg Stevens. I’m not suggesting that’s what happened here, but I think it’s a possibility.”

Allison said he hopes the incident creates awareness in the industry to keep these casino thefts from happening again. The thieves targeted weaknesses in casino controls, which are being addressed.

“You would have thought that after what happened in Colorado, every casino would be going to the cage and running an awareness program about this scam,” Allison said. “This blew up on the internet and I would say there have been a lot of meetings across the country today. They’re looking at their internal controls in the cages and asking, ‘Do we have the checks and balances?”

As for the Ocean’s Eleven movie, what happened at Circa and elsewhere is nowhere close to that elaborate plot to rob the casino of more than $150 million on a fight night. In the movie, the characters point out that Las Vegas is the most difficult place to rob, but Allison said that’s not the case.

“Las Vegas is the easiest place to rob,” said Allison, who has been critical of casino security. “Statistics show every year that casinos are candy stores for robberies. Now we’ve gone to the next level where you don’t even have to go into the casino to rob it. You can just call, like for a pizza, and they’ll bring the money to you. That’s hilarious.”

He also called the latest thefts in the industry “ridiculous. As I recall, Ocean’s Eleven was 10 people inside and outside, with machines and lasers. This scam isn’t anywhere near that interesting. A guy gets on the phone and pretends to be somebody. There are lots of con men out there and casinos get complacent.”