Your cheatin’ art

Jul 24, 2001 4:38 AM

Like an escalating arms race, casinos and slot cheats are locked in a high-stakes game of hide and seek.

Increasingly sophisticated and organized gangs are scamming machines with computerized devices and other tools, state regulators say. “They’re cheating right now. I guarantee it,” says gaming enforcement chief Keith Copfer.

Authorities arrest an average of 600 cheaters annually, but the game goes on unabated. One-third of the entries in Nevada’s Black Book of excluded persons are slot cheats. They also make up a majority of the 25 Most Wanted suspects appearing on the Gaming Commission’s website.

Unofficially, some $35 million a year is lost through slot cheating. The most audacious scams employ a ring of players who block cameras, divert attention and shuttle cash. They come armed with compact computer devices, mini-lights, optical wands and other high-tech paraphernalia to daze and gaff machines.

With casinos stepping up surveillance and electronic slots replacing mechanical reels, the days of old-fashioned coin slugging may be numbered. Today, a skilled gang can rig a slot machine in six seconds, less if security is in on the scam.

The most notorious slot cheat in recent times, Dennis Nikrasch, netted $16 million in two casino scams by concealing a hand-held device that programmed slots to pay off. Nikrasch, aka Dennis McAndrew, is serving a 71/2-year prison sentence, but he inspired others to follow suit.

In the past few months, Copfer said agents confiscated a similar gadget at a Las Vegas home. “We caught that one before it was used,” Copfer said.

Taking the cat-and-mouse game to a new level, slot cheats are increasingly running in rings, industry experts find. “It’s hard to cheat one-on-one anymore,” says surveillance consultant Andy Anderson, who conducts classes on body language and other subtleties of human psychology.

The biggest threats to casinos, experts say, are gangs of cheats who swoop in and target several casinos over several days or weeks.

Asian cheating rings have surfaced lately along the Strip with a token-shaving operation. By slightly shearing the $1 pieces, the coins don’t lift the bar quite high enough for the machine to count, Copfer says. Thus, the player gets more chances to empty the hopper.

Agents say the Asian rings use a number of lookouts and diversionary tactics to run the scam. And those distractions have made detection and apprehension difficult.

But Copfer says there’s not always strength in numbers. “Rings actually tend to stand out more. They attract more attention,” he says.

Still, organized operators proliferate because the know-how to develop scamming devices often requires more than one lone wolf. “These are very bright people,” Gaming Control Board Chairman Dennis Neilander told the state Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year. “It’s too bad they don’t do something worthwhile.”

In some cases, the cheats are exporting their expertise, running teams in Louisiana and elsewhere. One Black Book entry, Brent Morris, was recently arrested on cheating charges in Detroit. Many ringleaders are said to be hanging out in Arizona, away from the glare of regulators here.

Some cheaters take to wearing disguises, with a few even dressing in drag. One ring, still at large, is believed to have taken $5 million from casinos over the last 10 years.

The disguises are an attempt to circumvent increasingly sophisticated surveillance programs, which feature ever-larger databases.

Griffin Investigations’ latest advance is a facial-recognition program that helps casinos identify a player even if they don’t know his name or background. A surveillance camera snaps a picture of a player and a computer then searches through the thousands of images in its database to find which people most closely match the eyes of the player.

While casinos are skittish about discussing the scope of their security measures, sources say the Venetian and the Stratosphere are among the most effective. “(Stratosphere) catches more than anyone,” said one surveillance expert.

In an ongoing effort to even the odds, casinos are more likely to apprise regulators when a cheating ring is suspected. Likewise, gaming agents are pursuing such cases more aggressively.

“We’re focusing more on cheaters,” Copfer confirms. “The Black Book isn’t just about organized crime figures anymore. We realize (slot cheats) can be just as harmful.”

But Anderson, owner of Casino Visual Identification, says no amount of surveillance and enforcement will deter slot cheats. “If a machine is made by man, it can be cheated by man ”” or men,” he notes.

Casinos and regulators also know there are limits to what they can do ”” especially when clever cheaters gang up. “If you make a slot machine sensitive enough to distinguish between genuine quarters and fakes, it’s also sensitive enough to go off at the smallest thing and that slows up play,” sighed one agent.