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  • Willy Allison

Cheating May Be Sexy But it Doesn’t Pay the Bills (part two of two)

Today’s casino surveillance operations do more than catch cheats. They play an important role in a casino’s overall risk management strategy and their “stock” is on the rise.

A Weekend in an Urban Casino Surveillance Department

An intoxicated man is being ejected from the gaming floor for disorderly behavior. An elderly woman who has been playing the same slot machine for eight hours without eating is receiving medical attention after she fainted. A suspicious man is buying in large amounts of $20 bills at the slot machines but not playing. A high-roller has been playing for three days and the casino manager is asking for an update every hour on the status of his play. A man claims he went to the bathroom and when he returned to his slot machine someone had taken his credits. A search is underway for a woman in the casino who left her child in a car in the parking lot. A gaming floor exit door alarm that leads to the back of house goes off. A fight in the buffet has security officers running from everywhere. A man playing blackjack claims a coat that contained a large amount of cash has gone missing from the back of his chair. A problem gambler who self-excluded himself from the casino three months ago is back in sporting a beard and a pair of sun blockers. A young looking girl leaves the casino with an older man via the hotel rooms elevator. The cage has requested a photo of a man who is cashing out $100K in chips but has no record of play in the system. A bag of meth has been found in the bathrooms near the South entrance of the casino. Security advises that a player has been robbed at gunpoint in the carpark. A man is refusing to wear a face mask and is threatening to kill everyone with a nuclear weapon.

The phone rings. It’s a pit boss from pit 6, “Two people are claiming the same $5 bet on red at Roulette 4, can you tell me who it belongs to?” All these events require a surveillance investigation that can take from five minutes to five hours. Then there are the miscellaneous random events. They’re trending upwards. These require ongoing investigations that can take days, stretching surveillance resources to the limit. Here’s a snapshot of casino incidents that made the news in 2021 and required lengthy surveillance investigations.

$13.4M in cash went missing from a Korean casino along with a casino employee. A $1M fraudulent check scam in Atlantic City casinos. A man is busted running a counterfeit casino voucher operation. A man who used prosthetics and disguises to steal $100,000 from the accounts of Global Payments Gaming Services Inc. casino patrons hits multiple properties. A dozen casinos across the US shut down because of cyber attacks. Numerous incidents where casino winners (mainly elderly) are being followed from casinos and abducted and robbed. Anti-money laundering investigations going on in multiple countries. Multiple shootings on and outside of casino floors across the US. Fights in casinos resulting in death. An increase in counterfeit chips in Macau. Multiple gaming floor assaults and robberies. Multiple cage robberies. Continuing surveillance Covid-19 contact tracing investigations when employees test positive. A disgruntled ex-casino employee returns to the casino and fatally shoots other employees. Multiple “trick rolling” of casino customers. A dealer was arrested for cheating in collusion with baccarat players.

A lot of what Surveillance does now is reactionary. It’s not planned or scheduled, it happens without a word of warning and it usually needs immediate action. Surveillance room activity can go from a walk in the park to a big city, peak hour traffic jam in minutes. On top of all the things that can happen at a busy casino entertainment venue, there are a number of tasks and responses Surveillance is obligated to perform to comply with government regulations and their own property’s internal controls and procedures. These tasks can range from responding to calls from casino staff to mandated video recording of certain transactions and activities.

On top of that, as a good corporate citizen utilizing hundreds and sometimes thousands of surveillance cameras, casinos often are called upon to assist law enforcement agencies to identify criminals and associates activities. This work often goes on behind the scenes and can consume a lot of time. Sometimes it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack but reviewing surveillance video ticks off boxes in a police criminal investigation. Sometimes the video review is to no avail but being able to say you observed nothing is sometimes just as valuable to a case as saying you observed something.

Based on news reports over the last few years, criminal activity in and around US casinos appears to be on the rise; in particular, violence and money laundering activity. This is my opinion and is not backed up with any national or international industry database of casino crime. There is no database.

Casinos attract criminal activity like bees to honey. The type and volume varies around the world. A lot depends on the market a casino serves. A busy high-volume urban or suburban casino is going to differ in criminal activity then a small casino in a remote rural area. No operational risk management strategy fits all and surveillance priorities should be adapted to serve the needs of a specific property.

Juggling Soft Balls and Chainsaws

Today’s casino surveillance departments are called upon to perform many tasks. Surveillance was born from the need to keep cheats at bay. However, the role of Surveillance has evolved from watching and acting on suspicious activity on the gaming floor to becoming a casino entertainment venue’s call center and solution provider.

As casinos have evolved into multiple entertainment venues with multiple revenue streams, Surveillance is being called on to broaden their scope of responsibilities and offer assistance to more departments within the organization. At some properties the expanded role has been formally recognized in the organization and the appropriate resources allocated. At others, not so much.

Traditionally, Surveillance has had three primary customers: Table Games, Security and the Cage. There are now two other departments joining the Surveillance “customer platinum member club.”

Table Games remains the number one customer of Surveillance. Surveillance is essentially on speed dial in all the pits and the gaming managers’ offices. Surveillance is often asked to resolve customer disputes and dealer errors. This takes up the bulk of review requests from the floor. Then there are the winning players. If a blackjack player is winning, Surveillance is asked to “count him down.” If someone is winning on another game, they’re asked to “make sure he’s on the up and up.” When players get hot, the hot air rises to Surveillance. Responding to gaming disputes, mistakes and players winning is often seen as part of the business by gaming management. I’ve heard some surveillance managers refer to it as babysitting.

Security runs second to Table Games in the need for Surveillance assistance. The partnership is mainly one of providing video back-up (“eyes on”) for managing conflict and risk situations on the gaming floor. Evicting patrons from the property heads the list. Reasons vary from intoxication, disorderly behavior, underage, criminal activity and people who are currently banned from the casino sneaking back in. For a lot of properties it can be like a revolving door when dealing with banned customers continuously re-entering. In recent times, evictions have increased in a number of properties due to belligerent “anti-maskers” not complying with pandemic protocols.

Cage & Finance call on Surveillance from time to time to ask for help to balance their books. Cage variances are relatively few but the time spent reviewing video can be lengthy. If a window is out $100 at the end of an 8-hour shift, trying to locate the error on video is like reviewing 24 episodes of a Seinfeld series looking for the time George said “g’day mate.” For years these three departments were Surveillance’s bread and butter in terms of their daily business. They still are. However, in recent years two other departments have emerged and are rising up the charts in terms of consuming Surveillance’s resources. Given the associated increasing risks they represent, increased resources are justified.

Compliance in most casino jurisdictions around the world are being scrutinized like never before. In recent years government inquiries have led to disciplinary action for non-compliance of anti-money laundering regulations ranging from multi-million dollar fines to a major casino operator being put under supervision. The media and public light has shone on international money laundering and the movement of dirty money through casinos. Surveillance resources are being used more to assist in investigating an ever-increasing amount of suspect transactions. Although investigations into suspect transactions are not as frequent as table game reviews, often the amount of time spent on each case is at least five times more.

I know of some casino Surveillance departments that are now spending more time investigating suspect transactions than reviewing table game “issues.” In my mind this is not a bad thing. There is anecdotal evidence out there that money laundering is going on in casinos and if it has been deemed a large risk to the casino operation’s integrity then it should be given priority by Surveillance and focused on.

Risk Management & Legal is a broad area but surveillance is playing a key role in monitoring, investigating and reporting operational risks. Millions of dollars and hours of time are saved each year by casino organizations, thanks to surveillance investigations and evidence refuting false claims of injury, negligence or mistreatment by scheming or mistaken customers.

Assisting these five departments generally takes up to about 90% of a surveillance department’s investigative and response time now. The other 10% is spent assisting slots, food and beverage, hotel, investigations, internal audit, player services and misc. From a financial risk perspective, arguably slots, f&b, and hotel are disproportionally represented given that they represent the bulk of revenues generated in today’s casino entertainment venues.

Another role that Surveillance plays (or underplays) is being a casino organizations “internal affairs” department. Internal fraud is and always has been a large financial threat to casinos because of the large volume of transactions on and off the floor. Investigations into rogue employees, from frontline staff to managers, are time consuming and meticulous given the sensitive nature of one of their own stealing from the organization. Often surveillance professionals are chosen and taken aside, out of the day-to-day operations, to ensure a confidential investigation that only the Surveillance Director and the most senior person in the organization are privy to.

The Mission of Surveillance: Solving Problems and Preserving Integrity

These days the role of Surveillance is often questioned and not just by other department managers but also within the C-suite and by the heads of surveillance themselves. Veterans of the business (both surveillance and the floor) remember with a smile the days when Surveillance was there to simply watch the games and protect the bosses money. A lot still wish it was that way. The lure of the game is what was most appealing when they first started in the business.

In my opinion the mentality has to change. It already has in a number of progressive casinos that see the need for addressing 21st century problems. Most casinos are not gambling halls anymore. They’re entertainment venues designed to take people’s money in a multitude of ways that have nothing to do with blackjack and poker and the roulette wheel (Viva Las Vegas!).

The first change I would make is to change the name Surveillance. By definition it means close observation, especially of a suspected spy or criminal. Personally, I’ve never observed a spy in a casino but I have seen lots of criminals on review. The name is very cold war-ish and militaristic. Casinos are not that. They are businesses that provide entertainment. Surveillance conducts surveillance but it doesn’t tell the whole story of how the department has become an integral cog in the management of many departments.

The name should represent their real mission today — solving problems and preserving operational integrity. Something like: Solutions And Integrity Department (S.A.I.D). That way when there’s a mistake on a gaming table and money needs to be retrieved from an unhappy customer, the floor supervisor can say you have to give it back because they SAID. (Just joking, kind of…) Casinos like their department names to only have one or two words so what about: Integrity, Operational Integrity, Probity, Solutions Room, Answering Machine or The Truth. Just joking, you can’t handle The Truth.

Regardless of the name, the metrics for measuring the success of Surveillance should not be how many cheats or card counters the department catches but how many times problems are solved and operational integrity is preserved.

Problem solving is easily measured by the percentage of investigations and reviews that Surveillance is called on to conduct that they resolve. Well run departments that prioritize quality technology and training usually have a 99% or higher success rate for solving problems. This success is often unheralded but it is an achievement that should be shouted from the rooftops, especially around budget time.

Preservation of an operation’s integrity is a broad category but let me put it in simple terms. It means doing what is right. Truth, honesty, moral uprightness, good character, ethical, non-corrupt, scrupulous and fair. Whether it’s making sure the game is played to the rules, correct payouts, compliance with regulations or uncovering crime, the surveillance department plays a central role.

Surveillance department (and individual) performance should be measured on these two goals and how much time it takes to achieve them. On an achievement point scale, if an individual solves a “soft ball” problem like a gaming dispute it should be weighted differently than being asked to investigate a possible money laundering violation that takes hours to complete.

Some surveillance people will argue that watching monitors and looking for stuff should be recognized. They have a point…if they’re finding stuff. If they’re not, they are wasting the casino’s money. They are either under trained, looking in the wrong places or “motivationally challenged.” Of course, the other explanation is that nothing is actually going on. If that is the case they should be conducting structured compliance audits or analysis. That way they may find stuff going on, or at the very least their work can be formally recognized as doing something constructive to contribute to the preservation of operational integrity. Surveillance people should not be disillusioned by the new direction. In my opinion, it increases the value of the department and the individuals that work in it.

There are some challenges that will need to be addressed. Recruitment and training will need to get away from selling the sexiness of casino cheating. Casino cheat catchers need not apply. Analysts and investigators are welcome. I estimate that around 90% of surveillance professionals working today have never even caught a cheat. Detection of casino cheating is protected by four layers now: trained gaming floor staff, other customers, surveillance and the numbers. We’ve got this. Training needs to address the now and the future of the expanded operational risks in casino entertainment venues.

The structure of Surveillance will need to be reorganized. I suggest dividing the department into four specialized areas: a gaming call center, investigations, data analytics and technical systems. Right now surveillance employees are asked to be knowledgable in every aspect of an operation. It is not a realistic expectation unless casinos want to spend 2-3 years training staff and are willing to pay six-digits to secure that person in that position. Surveillance needs specialists not people who know a little bit about everything.

The old threats still exist in casinos but new ones have arrived in what are now casino entertainment venues. Compliance and risk management are important and should be priorities. Some don’t want Surveillance or casinos to change. In my eyes, both already have. In the current economic, political and socially conscious market where solutions and preserving integrity are in high demand, Surveillance stock is undervalued and underappreciated. My advice — buy now and invest in your surveillance department. Willy


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