New technology targets casino cheaters

Jun 18, 2002 10:29 AM

In the post 9-11 world, Las Vegas resorts have tightened security. But casino cheats are still busily plying their trade, experts say.

"They’ll cheat at every game and in every way,’’ says local surveillance guru Jim Pepin. "The bad guys have more up-to-date tools than the good guys.’’

But casino operators are trying to even the odds, and companies like Pepin’s Biometrica Systems are providing the technology to zero in on at least some of those bad guys.

Biometrica’s visual identification program is now employed in 150 casinos, including 40 in Las Vegas. That’s a big jump from five years ago, when the company opened shop with just three customers.

Tapping a databank of digital facial images provided by neighboring Casino Visual Identification (CVI), Biometrica clients can draw a bead on players who rig table games and slots. "You can do in seconds what used to take hours of poring over mugshot books. It’s zoom and click,’’ Pepin explains.

Now, in an emerging trend, casinos are working together as they play the cat-and-mouse game. Sharing pictures of suspicious players through digital file transfers, gamers are building an evermore expansive database of ne’er do wells.

Biometrica’s service runs about $8,000 a year, or, as Pepin puts it, "about a dollar an hour to protect all your games." "It can save a large Strip property hundreds of thousands a year,’’ he figures.

In compiling their rogue’s gallery, casinos are also snapping pictures of big jackpot winners, high-limit players and even employees. Security experts report that roughly half of the arrests for casino cheating are in-house jobs.

On top of that, heightened concerns over terrorist attacks have pushed surveillance technology to be more proactive. A new Biometrica camera trained on key locations and entrances utilizes a database of global criminal networks. A hand-held wireless unit allows images to be viewed off-site.

Andy Anderson of CVI believes that casinos have become more security-conscious by necessity. He notes that sophisticated fiber optic technology can now be used to invisibly embed microphones and other communications devices into the very fabric of clothing.

Meantime, shady players continue to confound slot machines and bill accepters with cheap, trusty gadgets like mini-lights and mylar bill covers. Table players still employ the old ruses of bending cards, pilfering chips and distracting dealers.

All in all, Las Vegas casinos lose an estimated $40 million to $70 million through cheating each year. This includes bad checks, which Anderson says have become one of casinos’ most pressing problems. In each case, player identity is crucial.

"Casinos have gotten more bottom-line savvy. They have no choice,’’ he says in reference to surveillance and security issues. "There’s a new generation of managers, with a lot more CPAs and lawyers.’’

Still, some observers, recalling the deadly biker gunplay at Harrah’s Laughlin last month, contend that casinos must do much more to ensure the safety of both customers and cash drawers.

"If a casino has a choice between planting a new palm tree and a better security system, they’ll pick the palm tree every time,’’ one surveillance guru grumbles.

But Anderson credits casinos with taking unprecedented steps in the last two years. He believes that the number of employee thefts has been reduced through tighter background checks. And he notes that bonus programs based on profit margins have made game security a higher priority for floormen. This has elevated the standing of the surveillance staff as departments work together.

On the flip side, Pepin sees yet another advantage to the improved photo technology on the casino floor.

"The biggest growth area may be with recognizing the good guys. The high-rollers and VIPs really want the royal treatment and best customer service without even having to show a player’s card,’’ he says

PALM PILOT ”” Allows ”˜handy’ access to security files.