Russia’s 2009 crackdown on casino gambling was apparently the spark that lit a global slots scam that continues to this day.
Last summer, Singapore authorities reported disrupting an international gang of casino cheats that was using smartphone technology to predict big slots payouts in advance. Little else was known about the scam until a lengthy exposé was reported in Wired this week.
Wired traced the origin of the scam to Russia’s 2009 decision to restrict casinos to a handful of geographically isolated regions. Russian gaming halls were left with little option but to sell off their stock of slot machines for whatever price they could get.
Some of these slots ended up in the hands of a gang of St. Petersburg programmers, who reverse engineered the machines’ software to identify their pseudorandom number generators (PRNG) and the internal clock data that identifies the current stage of a PRNG’s output.
By 2011, casinos in central and eastern Europe were reporting higher than normal slots payouts on older machines made by Austrian device maker Novomatic. The company studied the problem and alerted casino clients that it was conceivable that someone could “allegedly identify a kind of ‘pattern’ in the game results.”
In 2014, security at the Lumiere Place Casino in St. Louis, Missouri noticed that certain older slots provided by Australia’s Aristocrat Leisure were paying out more than usual. A scan of the security tapes revealed a Russian national who’d won over $21k in two days playing slots in a very methodical pattern.
The man was observed holding his iPhone close to the slot screen while playing normally, then walking away, only to return to the same machine a few minutes later. This time, he kept his phone in his pocket, but his finger would hover over the Spin button for long stretches before suddenly jabbing the button.
It turned out that the Russian – who was one of more than two dozen operatives scamming casinos around the globe – had been filming the machine’s screen, then emailing the footage to his accomplices in St. Petersburg, who analyzed the data to determine the machine’s PRNG pattern.
They would then send a list of timing markers to a custom app on the man’s phone that would cause the phone to vibrate 0.25 seconds – the normal reaction time of a human – before the slots player was to push the spin button. The system couldn’t guarantee a win but it heavily tilted the normal house edge toward the scammers.
Each individual scammer tried to keep his or her daily winnings under $10k per day to avoid suspicion. But a four-person team working multiple casinos could net up to a quarter of a million dollars per week.
US authorities ultimately detained a few of the scammers, some of whom were sentenced to a couple years in federal prison and face deportation once their sentences are up. But the gang remains active and appear to have modified their tactics to minimize future suspicion.
The Singapore case revealed that the in-casino scammers are now positioning their smartphones in shirt pockets behind pieces of mesh while recording the slot activity. The scammers have also reportedly begun using Skype as a means of real-time video transfer, eliminating the need to step away from the slot machine.
The only surefire defense against such a scam would be the wholesale replacement of older model slots still on casino floors, and both the casinos and the device makers appear convinced that the cost of such a dramatic action would be greater than losing out to the occasional scam that their security fails to detect.