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 an administrator at the Gaming Control Board.
Authorities arrest an average of 600 cheaters annually, but the game goes on unabated. One-third of the entries in Nevada’s infamous 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 web site.
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 hand-held 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.
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 day.
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 as coins pour out. 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 there’s not always strength in numbers. "Rings actually tend to stand out more. They attract more attention," a casino security expert said.
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. "It’s too bad they don’t do something worthwhile."
Some cheaters take to wearing disguises, even dressing in drag.
The disguises are an attempt to circumvent increasingly sophisticated surveillance programs, which feature ever-larger databases.
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.