crime:

Casinos on guard against tech-savvy baccarat ring

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Leila Navidi

Dealer Joe Carrion waits inside the high-limit baccarat room in January at the Hard Rock Hotel.

Wed, Feb 2, 2011 (2:01 a.m.)

On the eve of the Chinese New Year holiday and one of the biggest gambling events of the year for the Strip, casinos are rolling out the red carpet for baccarat players — and looking out for a group of cheaters suspected of scamming Las Vegas out of more than $1 million last month.

That’s when state Gaming Control Board agents detained a group of baccarat players at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, one of the casinos thought to have been victimized by a scam that involves having a player “cut” the deck by dragging the cut card over the top of the deck and slightly separating the cards from one another with an index finger.

Using a miniature camera tucked under the gambler’s sleeve, the player records the value and suit of each card and uses the information later.

Although the casino suspected the gambler of videotaping the cards, the camera couldn’t be seen, so the gambler and others in his party were released for lack of evidence, said casino security consultant Bill Zender, who helps casinos detect such schemes.

Cosmopolitan spokeswoman Amy Rossetti declined to comment and referred questions to the Control Board, saying it was against company policy to discuss ongoing investigations.

The scam is thought to be the handiwork of an Asian group called the “cutters” that has ripped off casinos worldwide for tens of millions of dollars, Zender said. Perfected in Asia, the group is testing the scheme on casinos in the United States, he said.

The group consummates the scam by transferring the camera images to a computer where the sequence of cards in the deck is written on a cheat sheet, he said. A different group affiliated with the cheating ring enters the casino, sits at the table and bets accordingly when the prerecorded sequence of cards emerges, he said.

Although dealers typically cut cards after shuffling them, baccarat dealers invite players to cut decks after the cards are shuffled. Like shuffling, casinos cut cards to ensure that the outcome of the cards is random. The bettor in this scam knows which cards will be played next because he immediately sits down to gamble after his co-conspirator has determined the value of the cards and while the sequence of videotaped cards is still in play.

Unlike card games such as blackjack that employ strategy and offer players choices on how to play their hands, moves in baccarat are forced by the cards players are dealt — an easier route for cheats to determine when the cards will fall their way so they can bet big, for example.

Police in Macau warned casinos there of the scam last year, according to an industry memo circulating among Las Vegas casinos. The cheaters are “extremely well-organized,” the memo said.

The suspected cheats at Cosmopolitan weren’t arrested because it wasn’t obvious to the casual observer that the gambler was using a camera during play, in violation of Nevada law, Zender said. Law enforcement needs probable cause to conduct a body search to determine whether a gambler is hiding a cheating device under his clothing, he said.

The Gaming Control Board’s enforcement chief, Jerry Markling, wouldn’t elaborate on the scam, but said an investigation of an Asian baccarat cheating ring is under way. Asian regulators and casinos, which commonly share information with casino authorities in the United States, are assisting in the investigation, he said.

Although the suspected cheats are still at large, Markling said scam artists are usually caught when they seek another score.

Knowing what the perpetrators look like will deter the first group from resurfacing but may not be a great help in combating a cheating ring the size of the “cutters,” which is believed to have dozens of members, Zender said.

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