The surveillance of casinos has changed dramatically since legalized gaming was introduced in 1931 in Nevada as a way to entertain workers for the Hoover Dam project. It has progressed from the lone pit boss, who watched over the games with his own eyes, to catwalks with agents watching games through binoculars and one-way mirrors, to the period of reel-to-reel video tape, VHS analog technology, and now—the digital video phenomenon.
Walk into any casino property in the United States and look up—you will quickly take note of dozens, if not hundreds, of cameras overlooking the gaming floor.
And not all cameras are affixed overhead. They’re skillfully placed in tables, pointed at slot machines, and peering out of ATMs to keep track of the various activities happening at a gaming property. In charge of these numerous devices is the surveillance department, tasked with watching out for any suspicious activity, from cheating and advantage play to employee theft.
“Just about every one of our cases involves surveillance,” says James Taylor, deputy chief of enforcement with the Nevada Gaming Control Board, the body in charge of regulating surveillance operations at casino properties in the state. “That’s why we have a good success rate at the district attorney’s office—because it’s hard to say, ‘I didn’t do it,’ when we have a video showing that you absolutely did it.”
But catching a thief is not as simple as capturing it on video. Casino environments are highly regulated by the state, and oftentimes tribal governing bodies, and must adhere to internal controls and a wealth of policies and procedures to remain compliant.
Casino surveillance bodies are working more than ever with other departments, law enforcement, and even competitor properties to ensure they are maintaining an environment of safety and security for their customers. Surveillance departments are also becoming more involved in risk management by investigating accidents by employees or patrons. By conducting a post-incident investigation using the video surveillance technology, casinos are often able to capture valuable digital video evidence involving incidents and accidents that may prove invaluable for claims management and potential litigation.
In this article, members of the ASIS International Gaming and Wagering Protection Council and Taylor discuss how surveillance is helping casinos adhere to regulations, stop nefarious activity by patrons and employees, and protect assets.
Patrons. Gaming properties are playgrounds for their patrons—but not everyone who walks onto a casino floor has intentions of winning fairly.
While surveillance analysts carefully monitor incoming video to see what guests are up to, the wealth of cameras is physically impossible for operators to manage around the clock. This is where analytics come into play, says Donald Childers, vice president of surveillance and loss prevention at Cherokee Nation Entertainment in Catoosa, Oklahoma, and a member of the ASIS Gaming and Wagering Protection Council.
“While we monitor as much as we can in real time, we also try to be as surgical as we can with our resources,” Childers says, noting that analytics can help surveillance zero in on certain times, dates, and locations of repeated problems. “That allows us to really focus our resources on trying to find answers to the questions we have.” He says analytics can help them determine the typical time of day a guest may try to get away with cheating, or what games they’re more likely to try to take advantage of.
As Taylor explains, cheaters and advantage players are not the same. “Advantage play is just that, taking advantage of the game whether it be a slot machine or a table game,” he says. “There are flaws, there are weak dealers out there, and there are statistical advantages that certain players can come up with in their head.”
As a law enforcement body, the Gaming and Control Board only gets involved with cheating activity, though casinos will likely ban advantage players when discovered. “Cheating is really committing an act of fraud in a casino, and a lot of our arrests are in those categories,” Taylor says. “Whether it’s someone that added money to what they think is a winning hand, or take money away from a losing hand, or they switch cards or bend cards or mark cards—any of the various cheating methods, it’s all captured on the surveillance cameras.”
While cheaters are a prime target for surveillance, Childers says the day-to-day nefarious activities are a concern as well. “We’re also just as focused on people who are walking around the casino looking for someone to snatch a ticket from, or steal a purse from, or someone who drops their car keys, and now they’re going to take their car out of the parking lot,” he notes.
Surveillance and analytics allow casinos to remain in compliance with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) by uniting video with cash-dispensing machine activity. Customers can use these ATM-like machines to collect their winnings by inserting their tickets. “One of the big problems that casinos have had ever since we started deploying these has been, ‘How do we safeguard against anybody who’s trying to circumvent Title 31—reporting with the IRS?’”
As Childers notes, the IRS requires that guests report casino winnings as income. “We have different thresholds where casinos will start gathering information on patrons through requirements by the IRS and FinCEN [Financial Crimes Enforcement Network],” he explains.
But the cash-dispensing machines can’t tell how many tickets are being inserted by one person at a time. “For all the machine knows, it was five different people,” he says.
The loss prevention department reviews daily reports run on those machines, and if it notices aggregate amounts in a tight timeframe that exceed $3,000, it notifies surveillance. Surveillance reviews the video to confirm whether it was one customer, or multiple customers, removing the cash. The compliance department then evaluates the cases where a customer may be attempting to dodge the IRS. “They will issue a suspicious activity report back to FinCEN if we feel that we have an individual attempting to circumvent the Title 31 process,” he says.
Employee theft. Surveillance doesn’t just catch patrons in the act of cheating, theft, or not complying with the IRS—employees are often the subject of investigations.
“About 20 percent of our arrests are employees,” Taylor says. This is despite the stringent background checks run on all casino workers by both the property and the Gaming Control Board. In Nevada, every casino worker must be registered with the state.
“We have 90,000 people who are registered gaming employees,” he says, “and every five years they have to re-register with us.”
Taylor notes that the rate of theft might be influenced by the temptation of working in such a cash-rich environment. “They know there are hundreds of cameras, but they just think, ‘I’m going to get away with it,’” he says of the employees. “And they might get away with it once or twice, and then they get greedy and, before long, they’re taking hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Employee theft ranges from fraudulent player card activity to stealing from the food and beverage department.
Employees working at a bar or restaurant inside the casino may, for example, serve an expensive drink to a customer, but ring it up on the point-of-sale system as a cheaper beverage. “They’re selling you a more expensive cocktail, let’s say an $8 drink,” Childers says. “You pay your eight bucks, but they go back and they ring it up as a $3 draft beer, and then they pocket the difference.”
There have also been cases where employees use insider knowledge to their advantage. Taylor recounts the case of a worker who created several fraudulent accounts to get thousands of dollars in free play money—money that can’t be cashed out but can be used to garner more winnings.
“On his lunch break he went into the parking garage and changed into shorts,” Taylor says. “He was wearing a suit one minute on camera, and the next minute he’s wearing shorts and a hat and glasses and a T-shirt. And he goes and plays with all of those cards and wins $3,900 on one day.”
On Childers’ properties, once the surveillance department has video that possibly incriminates an employee, the accused are put on suspension, pending an investigation. “We comb through all the data we have, and we treat everything—whether it be giving away products to embezzling a tremendous amount of money—with equal attention,” he notes.
In the case of food and beverage theft, the surveillance department works with food and beverage to sift through the data to determine any wrongdoing. Point-of-sale software overlays the video management system, allowing operators to match up video to any transactions at the register. This integration will help determine how much money the waiter or bartender registered, versus the price of the product they served a guest.
“These employees think they are going to get away with it, but eventually somebody’s going to see something,” Taylor notes. “The surveillance operator is going to key in on something odd, and they are going to get caught.”
Partnerships. Gaming surveillance professionals emphasize that their work is not done in silos, but in partnership with other departments, local and federal law enforcement—even other casinos.
“We try to work very closely with local law enforcement on identifying potential threats or possible threats that might negatively impact the casino operations,” says Tony Borges, surveillance director at Pechanga Resort in Temecula, California, and a member of the ASIS Gaming and Wagering Protection Council.
For example, at Pechanga, surveillance works closely with the public safety department to track people with arrest warrants who may be entering the property.
“Even though our main objective here is gaming and to be really focused on gaming crimes and unlawful acts that happen on the gaming floor, we are still mandated to be looking for the criminal element in general,” Borges says. “That’s where it pays off to be working closely with the public safety department.”
The partnership between surveillance and law enforcement also came into play during the October 1, 2017 shootings that left 58 people dead when a gunman opened fire from the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
The shooter, Stephen Paddock, was a frequent gambler at various Las Vegas properties. Investigators turned to Taylor and his team at the Nevada Gaming Control Board and asked if they could collect the video evidence casinos had on the shooter.
“We went to every casino and got any video they had of him—any interaction, report, any gaming record they had—and did a full analysis of him and his girlfriend,” Taylor says. “We put that together along with the FBI.”
The mandates for regulators have evolved over the last few years in Nevada, Taylor notes. In 2015, for example, the state gave the Gaming Control Board direct regulation of the nightclub industry.
“When nightclubs began popping up on the strip, there were a lot of problems with underage drinking, drug use, over-intoxicated people…just a lot of problems,” Taylor says. “And our agents started doing undercover operations at nightclubs,” he says, including buying drugs from employees.
Now that nightclubs are fully under the regulators’ scope, the Gaming Control Board’s duties have expanded to include running background checks on nightclub employees and registering them. “It’s kind of a new thing, and it just shows the changing environment of Las Vegas,” he says.
One of the regulators’ biggest jobs remains settling cash disputes—for example, if a customer says a slot machine was supposed to pay them $250,000, but only gave them $2,500. “We do $30 to $40 million a year in disputed money in our casinos, so it is a big part of our job,” Taylor says.
Overall, casino surveillance departments are benefiting from advancements in technology by allowing for increased performance and the ability to focus on those risks for soft target environments. They are no longer siloed, but are partnering with other departments and law enforcement to stop crime before it happens, or conduct thorough investigations after the fact.
As demonstrated in this article, gaming surveillance professionals are becoming analysts and true investigators. Working in conjunction with other departments and taking advantage of analytics, Childers notes surveillance has expanded its capabilities well beyond reviewing video.
“People think surveillance is a dark room with people staring into cameras all day long,” Childers notes. “But it’s a marrying of the data with the resources that we have.”
Gaming Surveillance Technology Trends
Technological advances are benefiting many aspects of gaming, and surveillance operators are taking advantage of cutting-edge cameras, analytics, situational awareness platforms, and more to protect patrons and employees and comply with regulations.
Robert Prady, CPP, PSP, is a member of the ASIS International Gaming and Wagering Protection Council. As a field sales engineer with Axis Communications Inc., Prady works with end users in gaming to ensure that their technology from all vendors works together to support the surveillance operations. “Interoperability is one of the bigger challenges our customers face, because there are hundreds of technology manufacturers out there,” Prady notes.
With the various vendors, he notes it’s important that the technologies used throughout the industry—from video management systems to cameras to DVRs to sensors—work together harmoniously to paint a picture of what’s happening on the casino properties.
“It has to integrate, and a lot of times there are hiccups between one manufacturer’s interface and a different one,” Prady says. “And being able to actually make it work, I spend a good amount of time helping the customers with that.”
The amount of information coming in from various sensors around the casino can be overwhelming for customers, Prady notes, and he emphasizes that technological requirements for casinos and any products they choose should be carefully considered to best serve the customer.
“We need to focus on the right information to give to the investigators…not an overwhelming amount, but just the right information—what’s really important,” Prady notes. “In a casino, that’s going to be tracking the money, tracking the assets, tracking the safety of the customers—that’s the information that needs to be prioritized.”
One technological advancement that has been a challenge for casinos is exploring video, especially if they’re required to turn over large amounts of it. “It takes twice as long to export it as to record it,” Prady explains. “Let’s say you need a week’s worth of video exported; it’s going to take you two weeks to export a week’s worth of video.”
In the past, the video was recorded on tapes or discs and could be turned over to police. With data stored in servers and the cloud, the exporting process can be burdensome for casinos.
“That’s something that needs to be planned for—how are you going to handle exporting all of your video at once if you have a major incident on a property?” he says. “It’s a planning exercise that’s good to do.”
Overall, Prady says the evolution of technology in the industry has helped streamline the gaming environment from a security and surveillance standpoint.
“Now we have cameras that can literally be as small as my thumb and we can place the cameras down in the furniture,” he says. “Cameras can be placed inside the gaming tables and out of the ceiling, with angles of view that we could never have before.”