Spy vs. Spy: Casinos Can’t See The Cameras Hidden Up Gamblers’ Sleeves

Cheaters are increasingly using technology, hiding cameras up sleeves and in betting chips. iStock

In January, at the newly opened $4-billion Cosmopolitan casino in Las Vegas, a gang called the Cutters cheated at baccarat. Before play began, the dealer offered one member of the group a stack of eight decks of cards for a pre-game cut. The player probably rubbed the stack for good luck, at the same instant riffling some of the corners of the cards underneath with his index finger. A small camera, hidden under his forearm, recorded the order.

After a few hands, the cutter left the floor and entered a bathroom stall, where he most likely passed the camera to a confederate in an adjoining stall. The runner carried the camera to a gaming analyst in a nearby hotel room, where the analyst transferred the video to a computer, watching it in slow motion to determine the order of the cards. Not quite half an hour had passed since the cut. Baccarat play averages less than six cards a minute, so there were still at least 160 cards left to play through. Back at the table, other members of the gang were delaying the action, glancing at their cellphones and waiting for the analyst to send them the card order.

The gang had just walked away from Macau, the largest gambling city on Earth, with millions. They took $100,000 from the Bicycle casino in Los Angeles only weeks after the Las Vegas run. The Cutters’ scam did not require marking or switching cards, so casinos’ card scans and tracking software was irrelevant. Security consultants say that the gang numbers about 70. (With so many players, facial analytic software is easy to beat.)

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At the Cosmopolitan, about 25 black-domed surveillance cameras hang from the ceiling above the high-stakes baccarat tables. Camera feeds, card scans, information about individual betting chips, and even biometrics about players are fed to a security suite at most new casinos, where software analyzes the data to determine betting outcomes in real time. a Cosmopolitan security official hovered a few feet behind the players, too, tracking wins, losses and betting patterns to identify cheats like the Cutters. Jeff Voyles, a hotel management instructor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, says that a new casino will spend at least $10 million on its surveillance.

Even so, casinos lose 6 to 8 percent of their revenue every year to some form of cheating, and sophisticated hustlers can take as much as $500,000 in just an hour. As cameras get better, smaller and cheaper, the cheaters are gaining an edge and casinos are struggling to keep up. “We’re really buried in tech and don’t know how to get out,” Voyles says, adding that because security systems don’t generate income, casinos are slow to update.

But that night at the Cosmopolitan, the house won. One of the Cutters slipped up, and security was alerted. Nevada Gaming Board agents were called in and shut down the game and detained the players. Still, they couldn’t find a camera. Bill Zender, a security contractor for high-end casinos, says that the agents didn’t find anything because they couldn’t get a warrant to search the gamblers. Video footage showed no illegal moves or suspicious behavior, and under Nevada law, the agents didn’t have probable cause to perform a full body search. The cutters were released.

In May, some of the Cutters were finally caught. A casino surveillance manager in the Philippines spotted a “spatula like” camera hidden up a baccarat player’s sleeve and he identified four more likely gang members nearby. meanwhile, casinos are considering installing counter-surveillance scanners that detect the low-frequency sound that video cameras emit.

Not four miles from the Cosmopolitan, you can buy such a scanner for $720 from Fox’s Spy Outlet. Manager Andrew Rowles will tell you that it has a range of only a few feet, and it might be picking up a cellphone, not a video camera. Rowles can also sell you a camera to beat the scanner. It’s hidden in a stick of gum and costs just $150.