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Sunday, October 27, 2002
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


Catch them if you can

High-tech surveillance methods help casinos fight ever-trickier crooks


Casino operators, crooks and criminals are using technology to play tag with one another.

"Device crime is rapidly on the rise," said Woody Pierce, managing partner in the International Casino Surveillance Network.

Surveillance, however, seems to be chasing out more conventional casino crime.

Amid the sound and fury, the arrest rate for casino crime is tumbling, down 25 percent so far this year compared with the first eight months of last year. Arrests also fell 20 percent in 2001 compared with 2000.

Casinos and law enforcement officials are working to wipe out crime to protect consumers and operators alike. But the crooks also are working smarter and turning to higher tech techniques.

Crime fighting and criminal developments are both functions of computer technology today, but arrests on the average have stayed level over the past decade and recently have been declining, he said.

Arrests for casino crime in Nevada actually fell to 412 in 2001, down from 529 in 2000, 518 in 1999, 598 in 1998 and 461 in 1997, said Keith Copher, chief of the state Gaming Control Board Enforcement Division.

Industry officials say overall casino crime is down because of the deterrence high-tech surveillance offers.

"People know the cameras are out there," Copher said. "All casinos have to meet surveillance standards and because of technology (crooks) are having to develop more sophisticated methods of cheating."

Casinos are open about having state-of-the-art surveillance technology focused on their guests, MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said.

"We want to let people know if you're interested in cheating, you'd better not come to an MGM property." he said, explaining that a prime benefit of state-of-the-art surveillance security systems is scaring the crooks away before they strike.

"It's hard to say how much theft you prevented," Feldman said, arguing public confidence in the integrity of the gaming operation is surveillance's most important product.

But Douglas Florence, vice president of API Services Inc., estimated effective surveillance systems such as those he formerly managed at the Rio can add 2 percentage points to a resort's return on investment.

"At a half a billion dollar casino like the Rio, that's a lot of money," he said.

And the systems developed for casinos in Las Vegas are so hot the government is picking them up to keep the nation safe from terrorists.

Systems Research & Development founder Jeff Jonas said his firm has been involved in surveillance for MGM Mirage properties for five years and most recently developed nonobvious relationships assessment, the latest technology in identifying potential problem customers.

It tackles large databases and compares such variables as all the addresses of current guests and individuals identified in Nevada's Black Book.

The new system is sufficiently powerful that rights to use it have been acquired by In-Q-Tel, a venture capital arm of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, to help identify terrorist threats, Jonas said.

In Las Vegas where it's always show time, surveillance is as essential to casino operations as lighting was to Alfred Hitchcock's filming of "To Catch a Thief."

Copher said the systems are for the protection of patrons and the casinos.

"And they're not just for catching cheats," he said. "We use surveillance as a tool for arbitrating disputes."

Said Feldman: "The surveillance is here principally as a key part of protecting the integrity of our operations in terms of the games we offer and how we run them. Customers are assured the games are honest and we're sure our properties aren't being penetrated by known cheats."

Because of these systems, he said, casino theft at MGM properties has been reduced nearly to zero. However, insurance fraud is still a substantial problem and surveillance systems have been effective in nabbing those culprits too.

Guests have been caught dumping water on the hallway floor, lying down on the floor, calling security to report an accident and the resulting injuries, and filing insurance claims, Feldman said.

Another guest was caught on tape beating himself up in an elevator and then claiming to have been assaulted and robbed, he said.

"We let them file the claims," Feldman said. "Then we prosecute."

Producers of "Oceans Eleven" caught at least the spirit of the Bellagio surveillance operation and spent a great deal of time in the resort's equivalent of a sound booth with its banks of monitors trained on the floors.

Bellagio surveillance chief Pat Fischer said 1,800 cameras are used to keep careful watch on the casinos and most public space in the resort, making it the most carefully scrutinized space in the gaming world.

MGM has been able to identify cheats after the fact with facial identification programs, track them out of the casino into the garage using the archived tapes that are kept for two weeks and facilitate apprehension by zooming in on the departing car's license plate, she said.

"That's an advantage of recording everything all the time. We can go back and see what actually happened (after incidents are reported)," Fischer said.

MGM Grand and other Las Vegas operators use facial recognition programs provided by Griffin Investigations.

Indix Software is a system Griffin built that matches customer images to 7,000 individuals including everyone listed in Nevada's Black Book.

Griffin Investigations chief Beverly Griffin said modern systems allow resorts to do the identification work instantaneously and to share the information among properties so if a crook is ejected from one casino, the individual can be kept out of the next one.

And ICSN's Pierce said information sharing is key to preventing casino crime.

Even the best prophylactic system can fail, however, and casinos are necessarily also in the business of catching crooks.

Casinos and law enforcement know where the crime takes place. In the past five years, almost 60 percent has been in slots, almost 20 percent in blackjack and 7 percent has been in the cash cage. The trick once the crimes are committed is catching the crooks.

In that case, techniques are pretty much low-key, relying on green-shaded accountants and old-fashioned forensics.

Casino criminals, however, are nothing like Cary Grant or Grace Kelly, and there is little glamorous about the security and surveillance work to catch them.

"In 2001, 36 percent of all those arrested for casino crimes were employees," API's Florence said. If they're stealing anything other than cash, they need collusion, and half the conspirators involved in casino theft also are employees, Florence said.

At the same time, 80 percent of all employees are problem-free, less than 20 percent are personnel problems and only 3 percent to 4 percent of employees are involved in activities that cause significant losses.

"Most crime, however, takes place by employees, most crime is uncovered by employees and most enforcement is by employees," Florence said.

ICSN's Pierce said, "Of all arrests made, 70 percent come from inside information from employees."

Good old-fashioned police work and forensic investigation are the bread and butter of catching the crooks, more than all the cameras and high-tech systems being installed, Florence said.


Slot Arrest Breakdown 1996-2001
1997 -- 461
1998 -- 598
1999 -- 518
2000 -- 529
2001 -- 412
-- Source: Nevada Gaming Control Board

Total casino theft arrests 1996-2001
(By percent)
Slots 58.8 %
Blackjack 17.4%
Cage: 6.9%
Other: 17.1%
Source: International Casino Surveillance Network

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