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FBI reveals details of multi-million dollar land casino scam
Posted 2/15/11 : A dealer-based land casino scam that outwitted casino security at venues throughout the United States and Canada and generated over $7 million in ill-gotten gains culminated last month in a guilty plea by the ringleader, ending a long-running criminal 'enterprise' that has been characterised as the biggest card-cheating scam in FBI history.
This week the FBI released details of the ring, headed by Van Thu Tran (45) and involving her husband, parents, extended family, and others.
Tran and her husband were dealers at an Indian tribal casino in San Diego in 2002 when they devised a plan to use a “false shuffle” to track cards and thereby guarantee successful betting for accomplices.
“Initially, it was a pretty bare bones operation,” said Special Agent Peter Casey, one of several FBI case agents who worked the Tran investigation out of the San Diego Field Office.
Over time, the couple branched out from an Asian card game called Pai Gow to blackjack, involving many others in the scheme - including dealers at other casinos - with the promise of easy money.
Before the ring was rounded up in 2007, some 29 casinos from Canada to Mississippi were hit for about $7 million.
The FBI notes that tribal casinos’ security was not at that time sophisticated enough to pick up on the scam, and although the operators sensed they were being cheated, they were not sure how, and called in the authorities in 2004.
The mechanics of the cheat started when a signal was passed to a crooked dealer, who would then make a false shuffle.
Through sleight-of-hand techniques that security cameras and pit bosses failed to notice, the false shuffle created a “slug” - a group of played cards whose order would not change when the rest of the cards were shuffled. When the slug next came to the top of the deck, members of the ring recognised the card pattern and knew how to bet.
“It’s a sophisticated scam, but at the same time it’s simple,” Casey said, “And that’s why it worked so well. The organisation controlled every aspect of the table.”
The ring eventually began using card trackers, nearby spotters who used concealed devices to relay the order of the played cards to someone at a remote location who instantly entered the information into a computer. When the slug reappeared, the computer operator picked up the pattern and relayed it to the spotter, who then secretly signaled the bettors. One finger on a cigarette, for example, might mean bet, two fingers might mean stand pat.
“It was almost like a catcher giving signs to the pitcher in baseball,” Casey said. In one instance, the ring won $900,000 in blackjack during a single sitting.
Tran and her family lived the high life on the proceeds, buying properties in the US and Vietnam, luxury cars and jewellery, some of which was seized when the perpetrators were arrested following an intense investigation that included surveillance, wiretaps, an undercover operative posing as a crooked dealer, and strong partnerships with Internal Revenue Service investigators, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, the California Department of Justice, and the Ontario Provincial Police.
To date, of the 47 individuals indicted in the case, 42 have entered guilty pleas to various charges.
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