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Player's points target of thieves, and casino employees17 August 2009
LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- At the heart of a casino's marketing machine lies its players club, which uses swipe cards to track gamblers' play as they rack up points to redeem for meals, hotel stays, merchandise and even cash.
So critical are these massive, good-as-cash databases to casino profits that, if there were to be an Oceans 14 movie, the next great casino heist might target the computers that manage them.
And it wouldn't be fiction. Casino insiders are raiding gamblers' loyalty points, according to casino regulators and security experts.
In one scheme, says Gaming Control Board member Randy Sayre, casino employees with access to players club databases transferred points from customers' accounts to bogus accounts from which an accomplice was able to redeem the points for tangible rewards. Employees also have created accounts and loaded them with bogus points.
The thefts are sometimes uncovered when the customer discovers his account has been drained. Were it not for customers' vigilance, some thefts might go undetected.
Sayre declined to identify the casinos or further describe the suspects, and arrest information for unidentified suspects is not available.
Control board agents have arrested multiple players club thieves in recent years in scams that have cost casinos hundreds of thousands of dollars, Sayre said.
The thefts have prompted new course work focusing on players club security as part of casino surveillance and security programs at UNLV and the University of Nevada, Reno, and the control board will hold workshops in coming weeks with casino operators to try to clamp down.
Stealing players club points is the latest development in casino thievery, which includes such old-school efforts as swiping chips, manipulating cards or using metal devices to tamper with slot machines.
Catching insiders who embezzle points can be difficult, security experts say.
A more elaborate scenario involves slot technicians who roam the floor with generic players club cards used to test slot machines. In some cases, slot techs have loaded those cards with points that can be transferred to a "player" who puts in his card afterward.
Many Nevada casinos are either unaware of these problems or aren't doing enough to stop them, experts say.
"They're aware of this, but nobody wants to admit that it happens at their property," says Gary Powell, a casino security consultant and former Gaming Control Board agent.
The increase in players club thefts isn't surprising given that most casino crimes involve slot machines as well as employees, Powell said.
Casino employees not only have access to sensitive information but also can attempt to cover their tracks, he said.
As an example, a players club supervisor at a casino in Washington state was indicted by federal prosecutors in May for draining about $20,000 worth of points earned by casino players and issuing cash vouchers that were redeemed by friends.
Casino security efforts are still focused on more traditional cheating methods and haven't caught up with the massive growth of casino players clubs, said Derk J. Boss, a loss protection consultant and lecturer at UNLV and UNR.
"Most casinos don't pay a whole lot of attention to this yet, which is why I am teaching it," said Boss.
After "getting burned" a few times, the company stepped up its security efforts concerning players clubs and now makes it a daily priority, he said.
"We never knew these clubs were going to grow to where they are today," Boss said. "Years ago you'd sign up for a card and get a coffee mug. Now they're the center of the marketing operation."
Over the years, technological advances — especially electronic slot machines that are hooked up to computer servers and spit out winnings in the form of paper tickets — have opened new doors for thieves, including counterfeit tickets and the manipulation of player records.
"Instead of stealing buckets of quarters, they can move money around more easily," Boss said. "Everything is computerized."
These advances also have yielded more tools to combat theft, such as daily records of slot activity. Managers can use these records to sniff out discrepancies from typical payouts by slot machines, for example. Players club systems may also show which employees have accessed the records and how they were changed.
Not all scams involve outright theft. In some cases, casino hosts — who are often compensated based upon the gambling volume of players on their roster — have manipulated points records to receive credit for players who were assigned to other hosts. And some creative cheats have opened multiple players club accounts to obtain several cards, which they insert into machines that are played by gamblers who don't have cards of their own. The thieves collect the cards after the players leave.
Poor communication and training is mostly to blame for the persistence of players club scams, Powell said.
"This business is very territorial. There's little communication between the slot manager, surveillance and security. You need teamwork to catch this, but ego and complacency stand in the way."
Copyright © Las Vegas Sun. Inc. Republished with permission.
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