Frank Floor Talk: Our thirst for crime stories

April 22, 2024 8:00 AM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports
April 22, 2024 8:00 AM
  • Buddy Frank, CDC Gaming Reports

For some reason, we all seem to be fascinated by crime. As proof, look no further than that oversized HDTV screen in your living room. The list of TV crime thrillers that top the ratings seems endless: “FBI” (three variants); “Law & Order” (multiple variants); “NCIS” (three variants); “Chicago PD,” “SWAT,” “True Detective,” “On Patrol,” “CSI,” “America’s Most Wanted,” “Blue Bloods,” “The Rookie,” and on and on.

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Psychology Today says, “These shows feed into the deepest, most frightening aspects of our lives, that our relative safety and civility can sometimes easily be shattered by predators in plain sight, both strangers and our closest loved ones. It seems a perverse contradiction that we are drawn like moths to these dark true-life tales instead of avoiding them at all costs.”

So, it should come as no surprise that the casino world would be no different. Whenever I used to lead a “back-of-the-house” casino tour for the general public, the most requested place to see was the “surveillance room” or the “security holding room”. Years ago, I started teaching university classes on casino operations. There, too, the most popular session, and the one that roused even the snoozing students, were/are those lessons related to casino crime and fraud. Fortunately for me, there is an almost endless supply of examples from yesterday and tomorrow to illustrate the topic.

The dramatic headlines today come from casino ransomware attacks extracting millions from the victims of sophisticated RNG (random number generator) hacks that turn slot machines into ATMs.

But some things remain the same. When I began teaching 30 years ago, robberies of casino guests or the casino itself were the number one issue. Interestingly, that is still the case today. There are weekly news reports of these very crimes today. The only difference from yesteryear is that instead of being local Reno/Las Vegas stories, the news flashes now roll in from coast to coast.

But that is not to say that casino crime hasn’t evolved. Marked cards, fake dice, past posting roulette, counterfeits and rigged machines were next on my list in 1990. Today, with our vast experience, better training and new technology, those types of crime are no longer happening. LOL! That is not even remotely true. Unfortunately, it’s like saying that politicians have finally learned that compromise and working together is the best practice.

While those early casino crimes are no longer near the top of the fraud list, they still occur. I, for one, am fascinated with these simple capers, especially when they are updated to take advantage of new technology. “Past posting” is the practice of making a bet after the outcome is known. Back in the pre-historic times (< 2010), this meant that a crooked roulette dealer allowed the bad folks to make their bets after the ball had already dropped into a wheel slot. Or, in the more sophisticated version, a good sleight-of-hand artist used distraction and dexterity to make late bets without anyone, including the dealer, noticing.

Just last month, two employees at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh, PA helped pull off a new version of the old scheme on an Interblock ETG (electronic table game) machine. This ETG game was a hybrid where there is a live dealer spinning the wheel, but betting is done with electronic terminals. The proper dealer procedure is to spin the ball, or pill[1], in the opposite direction from the wheel spin. These crooks realized that a flaw in the ETG software would not activate the “no more bets” feature if the ball was improperly spun in the same direction as the wheel. Therefore, after the ball dropped into a numbered slot, bettors working in collusion with the cheating employees would “past post”. The crooked game supervisor would then authorize the illegal payouts, many of which were up to $2,000. As a side note, both the dealer and supervisor were arrested and charged in a preliminary hearing earlier this month.

The caper was reminiscent of last year’s issues with Aruze’s “Roll To Win” ETG craps game, where players could “slide” dice or make false entries on the dealer’s touch screen. Aruze has since sold the game concept to Interblock, and IB has fixed these flaws in the popular automated dice game. You can bet their roulette game will be, or has been, corrected.

There are three relevant lessons from these events. One is that ETGs are not any more vulnerable to cheating than any other game. They are just newer. It takes some time for the bad guys and the good guys to adapt, just as it did in the past with Keno, the lottery, blackjack and every other game from Faro to online sports betting. The second lesson is that if multiple levels of employee(s) decide to collude, it is much more difficult to prevent cheating. Finally, and it is worth repeating over and over, follow and monitor policy and procedures.

I have been able to feed my personal addiction to major and minor casino crime stories by serving for the last three years as the MC for the annual World Game Protection Conference (WGPC), which is held each spring in Las Vegas. Developed by Willy and Jo Allison beginning in 2006, this annual conference is designed to let security and surveillance pros learn more about the latest crimes, threats, prevention techniques and anti-cheating gear.

The show has always been closed to outsiders. Invitees are limited to those in the industry who “have a need to know”. Ironically, some of the speakers and presentations are made by actual card counters, cheats, magicians, hackers and con men in the industry. Most of them have converted to the good side of the Force, but not all of them. The philosophy is that sharing makes it better for all of us (except the bad guys). While the world of surveillance might appear to be confined to dark rooms and shadows, this show shines a spotlight on best practices and reminds us that keeping secrets can often make things worse.

If they opened admission to the crime-fascinated general public, the demand to attend the WGPC might easily eclipse Taylor Swift’s box office records. Fortunately, for us, Willy Allison is a long-time, dedicated surveillance pro. His mission is to make things harder for cheats around the world. He knows that sharing with his colleagues is the best way to do that. Showing the rest of the world the latest scams and anti-cheating techniques would do the opposite.

This year, the conference had more focus on cyber-crime with a handful of presentations on how social media is being misused (many are convinced that the recent MGM and Caesar’s ransomware attacks were born in social media). One panel featured casino executives and IT pros that were the victims of ransomware. They openly shared how it happened, and how they survived. It was eye opening. The show’s vendor exhibition also demonstrated the latest in camera technology, anti-hacking and recovery software tools.

But as mentioned above, the old crimes are still with us. Amid the high-tech hardware, at the WGPC there were also eye-opening demonstrations of old school false shuffles that were nearly impossible to spot and miracle-like demos of switching fake dice in and out of a crap game undetected.

It’s also interesting that the most recent additions to Nevada’s List of Excluded Persons (aka “The Black Book”) have all involved old school scams. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Black Book read like an Italian phone directory with mob names like Battaglia, Bulgarino, Caifano, Dragna, Giancana and Sica.

The latest inductees are less infamous and certainly less Sicilian. In 2019, Mark William Branco made his mark by heading a four-man craps scheme at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. As a dealer, he helped pay phony bets on the table for his fellow cheaters. In 2023, Shaun Joseph Benward made the list with a simple scam to “past post” on roulette games. He was a professional magician (which helped), but he also made a practice of complaining loudly that he’d made bets on the winning number, when he hadn’t. He was often paid just to get him off the table and out of the casino. Before making the book, he was arrested in nine different states and trespassed in 17 Nevada casinos.

But my “favorite” was Joseph Witt Moody who made the list in 2018. His method was to rip off elderly casino patrons by distracting them at ATM kiosks or in front of their slot machines. He would then steal their money or tickets. I say “favorite” because this was a disturbing crime I encountered often during my years working the slot floor. It really bothered me that most of the innocent victims were the stereotypical “little old ladies” or “grandmas”. It was my hope that Moody landing in the book would stop others from trying this scam. Apparently not.

Last month, on March 20th, prosecutors in Oklahoma charged Jason McBrayer with using a live snake to scare a player off his slot machine at the Remington Park Casino and steal a ticket worth $400. The next day he threatened a gas station attendant the same way and cut off the snake’s head before leaving.

Police arrested him a few blocks away and charged him with “robbery by force or fear”.  While he probably won’t end up in the Black Book, he was charged with an additional count of “animal cruelty.” You can’t make this stuff up.

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Note: The 2025 edition of the World Game Protection Conference will be held in Las Vegas on March 11th – 13th.

[1] Trivia: Professional roulette balls (or pills) are made of teflon, ivorine, acetal, delrin, nylon, or other phenolic material and good ones are accurate to within .0001 inch. Metal or glass balls are not used since they can scratch the finish of the wheel. In the past, manufacturers would often use ivory. Modern pills are generally colored white or ivory.