Nationwide casino scam hits tribal properties, National Indian Gaming Commission warns

July 16, 2023 6:15 PM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports
July 16, 2023 6:15 PM
  • Buck Wargo, CDC Gaming Reports

The National Indian Gaming Commission has sent a warning to tribal gaming operators and regulators, alerting them to imposters pretending to be vendors, or state or tribal officials, in order to scam Native casinos out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.

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The notice comes a week after Nevada gaming regulators issued a similar warning of the nationwide scam that’s sophisticated and evolving.

So far, thieves netted $1.17 million from Circa Las Vegas and targeted casinos in Mesquite and Laughlin. The Circa case led to the arrest of 23-year-old Erik Gutierrez Martinez, on theft charges.

In March, $500,000 was reported stolen from Monarch Casino in Black Hawk, the largest casino heist in Colorado history. A suspect was also arrested in that case.

“Recently, multiple instances of scams at commercial and tribal gaming operations have led to losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars,” the National Indian Gaming Association said in a statement. “The NIGC has been made aware of several failed attempts as well.”

The NIGA, while not identifying any properties, gave a recent example of a reported scam. Someone impersonating a tribal official called the victim working in the vault, stating that a payment must be made immediately to ensure a vital shipment of equipment. The victim was told to remove a $100,000 or more in some instances from the vault and use their personal cell phone to remain on the line, while being directed to drive to Bitcoin deposit kiosks within the area, then send the QR code scanned at the kiosks.

“During these calls, scammers attempt to collect or facilitate a cash deposit under the pretense of a false emergency, the failure of which would result in dire consequences to the operation, the tribe, or the other party,” the NIGC said in its warning notice to tribes. “The transfer of cash may take the form of a hand-delivery to an individual with whom the victim is directed to meet (usually off-site), by depositing it into Bitcoin deposit kiosks, or by a wire transfer from one bank account to another. These are but a few examples of known cases, and scammers may attempt to use other means to get the victim to illegally transfer the cash or funds.”

The NIGC said it’s urging tribes to report the calls immediately to tribal or local law enforcement, the local FBI office, and the U.S. Secret Service. These agencies can detect patterns of fraud from the information collected and share it with other law-enforcement agencies.

The notice also exhorted tribal officials to ensure that cage, vault, or accounting staff, who have direct access to cash and/or bank accounts, are made aware of the scam and know what to do if it happens. “We also ask that you report these incidents to the NIGC region offices so that the information can be shared with other tribes through updated alerts, training, and other communications.”

Darrin Hoke, a casino surveillance consultant who hosts a regular podcast with World Game Protection Conference founder Willy Allison in which both have focused on the nationwide thefts, said these scam attempts are nothing new.

“What’s new is that it’s working in the casino environment,” Hoke said. “It hasn’t happened in the past. We used to get two or three (such) calls every year when I was still working in the industry, and it never worked, thanks to all the controls in place. It’s odd that it’s working now and must mean that the scam artists are doing quite a bit of research on their targets in order to facilitate these outcomes.”

Hoke said it’s not surprising tribal casinos are now targets, much like commercial properties that have already been hit. Tribal casinos aren’t more vulnerable than commercial properties, but remain a target.

“The scammers have two things going for them in casinos: huge databases of people and a lot of money. Both are attractive targets to any social-engineering scheme, whether it’s someone targeting your players’ list or cage cashiers for money.”

The NIGC said the perpetrators use perceived authority, fear, and urgency to manipulate employees into breaking internal controls. The scammers sound and appear credible, often pretending to be a casino manager, gaming regulator, vendor, tribal official, or some other person of authority to whom the victim may feel obligated to listen.

The scammer may provide the victim with what appears to be first-hand knowledge of the operation and procedures and if initially questioned may push back and intimidate the victim with fear of job loss or some other imminent legal action. They enhance their credibility through the use of spoofed phone numbers that appear on caller IDs, as if they’re calling from a business, government agency, manager’s phone, or another phone number familiar to the victim.

The call may come after normal business hours when most officials or top managers have already left for the day or there is a reduced number of gaming operations staff with whom the victim can confer, the alert said.

The NIGC is urging tribes to alert staff with access to cash and financial accounts; ensure that approved internal controls, policies, and procedures are up to date and protect assets; and remind staff to follow the approved controls for movement of cash, transfer of funds, or payment of outstanding invoices and to verify the request independently by calling or communicating directly with their supervisor or manager.

Staff should be trained to be alert and understand what suspicious activities may look like with both guests and employees, and to report any such activities to a supervisor or manager. Such suspicious activities may include instances of other casino employees not following internal controls and/or policies and procedures, the notice said.

Staff should be trained not to deviate from established controls and procedures, regardless of who is allegedly on the phone; to immediately alert co-workers, security, surveillance, the supervisor or manager on duty, the Tribal Gaming Regulatory Authority, and law enforcement; and limit the direct transfer of external calls to sensitive areas, transferring them instead to security office for service.