Casino Security Exposed: An Inside Look
Ocean’s Eleven was one of the biggest grossing movies of the 21st century, and while most patrons went to watch George Clooney, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts, it left plenty of others wondering what security is really like in large casinos.
Is it really possible to rob a casino? A very small number of heisters have gotten away with it, but casino robberies are much harder to pull off these days. Since casinos have such a huge amount of money on hand, they - naturally - have very strict security protocols to make it very difficult for crooks to rob them.
CASINOS HAVE DEVELOPED SOME OF THE WORLD’S BEST SECURITY TECHNOLOGY
Unsurprisingly, casino vaults have some of the most advanced security systems in the world. Exceptional security is critical since they have to store millions upon millions of dollars.
In fact, the technology modern casinos have developed to improve security is so advanced that it’s often used by other institutions. Dave Shepherd, former executive director of a major casino, has stated that casino technology is often adopted by everything from banks to governments around the world. One compelling example is the Non-Obvious Relationship Awareness (NORA) software that casinos developed to identify cheaters. Banks and government agencies are currently using the same software to reduce security threats.
The precautions they’ve taken have prevented many casino heists. However, some crooks have still successfully made off with massive amounts of money, such as a daring hacker at the Melbourne Crown Casino in 2013. These few successful heists - as well as the inventive new attempts mounted every year - have forced casinos to continually invest in improving their security.
HOW DO CASINOS THWART WOULD-BE HEISTERS?
Certainly, criminals have tried tons of different strategies for stealing money from the world’s largest casinos. A handful of these heists have worked, because they identified the weakest security links in otherwise extremely well-guarded casinos.
Shrewd security directors recognize the need to protect every aspect of the security system carefully. Here are some of the different ways they ensure the casino is highly secure:
Creating a Deterrence with Armed Security
Security guards remain the first line of defense in any casino. They may not be high-tech, but their presence reminds guests and aspiring robbers that they’re being carefully watched. Who knows, some criminals may have even chickened out after making eye contact with one of them. The truth is that most robbers aren’t fearless psychopaths, and will be scared off by the thought of exchanging fire with a guard.
Casinos have over 20 different dispatch codes that their security officers need to be aware of. They are also taught how to use sophisticated tools needed to identify and resolve security threats.
Having a Crisis Plan for Robberies
Educating employees on preventing robberies is just as important as using the most up-to-date security technology. Craig Morton, a security director at a cruise ship that hosts a casino, said that employees must be instructed on how to use the technology.
"They are fundamentally intelligence gathering tools which then provide the Surveillance Team with additional information on suspected play or persons. The real benefit of these systems is when proper procedures are in place to gather, analyze, manage and process the relevant data in a meaningful and productive way. If not, then the Surveillance Team finds itself overwhelmed with intelligence and data which they cannot handle."
Casinos train their employees to deal with any crisis that can occur. Since a robbery is a real possibility that they’ll have to face at some point in their job, they must know how to act. For this reason, they’re trained to report any suspicious activity to security and to work with their colleagues to stop a robbery in progress. As the Vee Quiva Casino case below illustrates, employees can play a crucial role in stopping robberies - but only if they know how to respond.
According to one security guard answering questions on Reddit, everything in their casino is within a 120-second running distance. As a result, security can easily respond to a robbery taking place, giving the robbers little time to react after the guards have been alerted.
Monitor the Entire Premises
Casinos have learned the hard way not to focus all of their attention on the cashier cages. Red flags of a potential robbery can often be seen on other parts of the casino grounds, making it essential to carefully monitor the entire premises for warning signs that a robbery could take place.
In 2005, Wynn Las Vegas developed one of the most sophisticated security systems in the world. They hired North American Video (NAV) to develop and install the new technology, which was later used to secure every part of the casino grounds from the parking lots to the guest rooms.
"This is by far the largest single installation we as a company have ever performed, or even are aware of around the world," said NAV President Cynthia Freschi. "Since we were awarded the system contract last year, our staff has been working literally around the clock to assure we lived up to our commitments."
Many other casinos have followed suit and are careful to monitor every part of their establishment. Consequently, employees in the hotel can report any suspicions to security before security breaches can even take place.
Standardized Security Systems
Though the gaming industry has become highly globalized in recent years, many casinos have not yet implemented uniform security protocols in each of their establishments. This has resulted in the opportunity to identify the effectiveness of certain security measures and to recognize the need to create a standardized approach to security.
Wynn Casino had to learn this lesson last year after one of their junkets in China was robbed. The robbers made off with $258 million, forcing Wynn to learn a couple of lessons:
- The need to make sure that a high level of security is implemented in every property.
- The need to adapt to local challenges, such as a less responsive police force.
Casinos have learned from this robbery that they need to let their own security strategies guide many of their practices, rather than relying too heavily on the guidance of local gaming regulators.
During the 1990s, few casinos had very sophisticated surveillance systems. However, owners quickly realized the need to get with the times after a few well-publicized heists. An employee at Treasure Island, for instance, stole $10,000 from a vault in 1991, which prompted the casino to install high powered cameras honing in on this and other high priority access points.
The first cameras relied on analog signals, though casinos started making the transition to digital cameras about a decade ago. The original appeal of digital cameras was their higher precision and ability to save more data. However, digital surveillance systems have also been able to incorporate more advanced software, making casinos more secure than ever.
Modern security systems are equipped with facial recognition and license plate reading software, which allow them to keep tabs on frequent patrons that seem suspicious. The images are compared against a database of suspicious people or anyone that has tried defrauding the casino in the past.
However, these systems aren’t entirely foolproof. Ted Whiting, director of surveillance for Aria Resort and Casino, has stated that current facial recognition technology hasn’t been very effective, since most people are moving too quickly for the software to get a good read on their faces. The technology may play a greater role in the future, but today, casinos must still rely extensively on traditional surveillance techniques.
Further, Jeff Jonas, founder and chief scientist of Systems Research & Development, argues that limitations in casino security systems may not be related to technology, but casinos’ desire for profitability.
“They spend the minimum amount of money on security and surveillance. They’d rather buy three more slot machines and make money. They only mess with you if you’re really, really cheating.”
Jonas estimates that a casino like the Bellagio may have 2,000 cameras connected to 50 monitors, but only a few people watching the live surveillance footage. While it’s there for review should suspicious behavior take place, surveillance systems clearly aren’t the casinos’ only line of defense against security threats.
Casinos also have to carefully monitor their own employees, as they can collaborate with patrons to cheat or plan robberies on their own. According to a white paper from Cisco, about 50% of all losses that casinos incur are attributed to employee theft. The Nevada Gaming Commission issued similar findings, showing that about 34% of suspects arrested for robbing or cheating casinos were employees.
One way that they can do so is by equipping players with empty chip stacks that look like they contain $5 chips. Dealers can then subtly hand the players their chips, which are then hidden inside the compartments.
Surveillance systems carefully monitor all tables to try to catch this type of activity. They also pay close attention to losses at individual tables, so that they can catch on if employees are conspiring with players. Employees are aware how closely they’re being scrutinized these days, so few of them are willing to collude with players to cheat the house.
Background Checks of Employees
It isn’t always the patrons that casinos must contend with; some of the biggest attempted casino robberies over the past century have been orchestrated by casino employees. Casinos need to be wary about anyone they hire, which means that they’re required to conduct thorough background checks. Many jurisdictions even require employees to license and register their employees with the gaming regulator.
When it comes to casino heists, hackers have traditionally had a better track record than crooks relying on brute force. As an example, some of them have used the casino’s wireless networks to access the cams to see what cards other players had and relayed that information to an accomplice on the casino floor. Consequently, casinos have had to adopt 128-bit encryption to make it more difficult for them, in addition to carefully monitoring suspicious connections and terminating them.
Obviously, casinos need to work closely with local law enforcement, though they ways they go about doing so must be subtle. In the event of a robbery, they often use silent alarms to warn the police and get assistance. Silent alarms allow casino employees to notify the authorities about a robbery without the robber knowing.
Silent alarms are also used in the vaults so that crooks will take their time, without knowing the cops are on their way.
NORA Public Records Search
Casinos want to be very cautious with guests that have criminal records, and they can use new technology such as NORA (Non-Obvious Relationship Analysis) to do background checks on anyone that looks suspicious. NORA is usually used to identify relationships between known cheaters and possible accomplices, but it can also be used to determine if any guest has a criminal record.
The NORA system allows casinos to remove anyone that is known to have been convicted of robbery or theft by deception, along with anyone that is suspected of colluding with them.
Highly Sophisticated Vault Security
The UK Gambling Commission requires that casinos have a reserve of cash to back up every single chip in play, as do many other regulatory bodies. Since this is such an extremely large amount of money, regulations also require that the vault be extraordinarily secure. There are a number of security features that casinos use to thwart robberies, such as:
- Time delayed locks
- Limited access codes trusted to a few select employees
- Thick steel walls and floors
A robber was able to drill into a vault at the Cloud's Cal-Neva in 1982, but the vaults have become much more secure since then. In 2015, drilling through a vault in the same manner would take days to do. Criminals are more likely to try beating the slot machines or cheating at the blackjack table, as they have a much better chance of walking away with their winnings (even though these are still slim).
When most people picture a casino heist, they think about a crook trying to steal money. However, many crooks actually try to steal the chips instead. Their plan is to either return to the casino to try to sell them for cash or sell them on the streets. Either way, it’s up to the casinos to make sure that the stolen chips can’t be cashed in.
One way that they do this is by using RFID technology. Higher denomination chips are often marked with RFID chips, so the chips need to be scanned before they can be traded back for cash.
The original intent of these chips was to catch counterfeiters, but they’ve shown to be a very effective solution for stopping robbers as well. If a crook steals chips in a holdup, the casino can turn off the RFID tracking so that they’ll be, effectively, worthless.
Reputation Management Software
Reputation management technology is also vital to improving casino security. Casinos utilize tools such as Iovation's ReputationManager 360, which allow them to collect data on all of their guests. This includes information they post on public forums and other sources:
"Over 2,000 fraud professionals and hundreds of online brands contribute 50,000 details of fraud each day,” claims Iovation.
Ultimately, this kind of detailed information can help profile guests and target potential crooks.
Keeping Close Track of Cash Reserves
Casinos need to keep close records of all of their cash reserves in case of a security breach. If any cash isn’t accounted for, then they need to conduct an investigation.
According to the security officer posting on Reddit, his employer has between $5 and $20 million in their vault at any given time. The money that casinos are required to have on hand varies by jurisdiction, though they need strict controls to monitor these reserves, often necessitating frequent audits.
Armored Vehicles for Transport
Savvy robbers will always try to target the weakest link in the security system - often the vehicle that’s used to transport cash to and from the casino (remember Ocean’s Eleven?). Cash is almost always transported in armored vehicles these days, because casinos want to make it as difficult as possible for potential robbers.
These vehicles are extremely secure and guards are typically heavily armed. The money isn’t kept in the open for very long, which makes it very difficult for robbers to pull off a heist.
CASE STUDIES ABOUT CASINO SECURITY
As security at major casinos is among the toughest in the world, very few robberies are successful these days. And due to the amount of security footage most casinos have on file, the few crooks that are able to pull off a heist will rarely get to enjoy their spoils before finding the cops knocking on their doors.
But even if robberies aren’t successful, they’re still fun to read about (and to learn from, if you’re involved in casino security professionally). Here are some examples of attempted casino robberies that failed that should help discourage sensible crooks from trying to pull off a similar stunt:
Reginald Johnson – The Guy that Kept Coming Back
Reginald Johnson was a thief that tried to rob Treasure Island in Las Vegas in 2000 – three times. Johnson failed to steal anything and proved to be one of the most incompetent crooks ever. He was eventually apprehended and sentenced to over 130 years in prison.
There are a couple of reasons that Johnson failed and was subsequently prosecuted:
- The casino was recording all activity on the floor, so they had very clear footage of the crime. This helped police eventually identify Johnson and the prosecution used the video against him in court.
- Johnson struggled to deal with the security at Treasure Island. He ran into a security guard and tried firing at him. While the guard was wounded, Johnson clearly knew that the shot would be called in. After failing to convince the cashier to hand over the money, Johnson fled and eventually ran into a cop on the street.
Clearly, the presence of security in a casino can make a big difference. If the bandit exchanges shots with the guard, the odds that they’ll be able to carry out the heist successfully before the police show up are pretty slim.
Eric Alan Aguilera and Roland Luda Ramos
Eric Alan Aguilera and Roland Luda Ramos were a couple of crooks that tried to rob the Soboba
Casino back in 2005. They tried the tired old routine you’ve probably seen in cops and robbers movies from the 60s: they donned a couple of masks, burst into the casino and held the employees hostage. Being heavily armed, they were able to get away with one and a half million dollars - before they were caught by the police down the road.
One of the odd things about this case was that Ramos was actually an employee of the casino. He had detailed insider knowledge of the facilities and the routines of his coworkers, but even that didn’t help him or his accomplice pull off this brazen robbery.
Darvon Hibbler and Corey Wright
Last year, Darvon Hibbler and Corey Wright tried to rob the Vee Quiva Casino in Arizona. Hibbler made a motion as if he was about to pull a gun out while facing one of the tellers, prompting another cashier to notice and call for security, demonstrating that robberies can be prevented if employees are trained to act appropriately.
Hibbler and Wright left the casino without getting any money. They had a couple of friends help with their getaway, but all four were eventually charged for their participation in the botched heist.
The case of Anthony Carleo demonstrates the effectiveness of RFID technology in preventing casino robberies. While Mr. Carleo was able to steal $1.5 million worth of chips during a holdup, the Bellagio was able to turn off their RFID trackers so that he couldn’t cash them in. Carleo was later arrested after trying to sell the stolen chips to undercover police officers.
NEW APPLICATIONS MAKE CASINO SECURITY TECHNOLOGY MORE COST EFFECTIVE
Clearly, casinos have invested considerable amounts of money into developing and releasing security technology. But since they, of course, want to generate as much of a return on their investment as possible, they’ll typically expand the use of their technology to other applications as well.
- Many casinos use their surveillance systems to identify guests in need of any type of assistance, including those who are lost or who are experiencing medical emergencies.
- They can also use license plate recognition software to tell if one of their VIP guests is arriving, giving them the chance to greet them properly.
- They’ll use surveillance to monitor guests at slot machines - not just to catch people cheating, but also to monitor their frustration levels. This allows them to make improvements to provide a better user experience.
Casinos have been at the forefront of developing security technology that’s later used by other organizations. However, as hospitality companies, they’re primarily developing new technology to provide a better experience for their guests. In many instances, however, these developments just so happen to overlap.
ODDS OF ROBBING A CASINO ARE VERY LOW
As you might expect, casinos are more worried about dealing with cheating than robberies these days. After decades of continuing investment and development, their security programs are so sophisticated that few people are able to get away with pulling off an old-fashioned heist.
And they aren’t through yet. Casinos are still improving their technology, making future robbery attempts even more difficult. As exciting as the Ocean’s Eleven series was, today’s crooks simply shouldn’t expect to be able to pull off a robbery successfully.