Russian Casino Cheats Targeted Slot Machines in US Casinos in 2014
Russian casino cheats engineered a software program which made American slot machines go haywire in June 2014, according to a report released this week by Wired. The software caused several slot machines in the Lumiere Casino in St. Louis to produce a “negative hold” over two days in early June 2014.
A negative hold is when a slot machine loses more cash than it holds, despite not awarding any major jackpots. While such an aberration is not impossible, it is highly improbable, so negative holds are a red flag to casino accountants. When Lumiere’s accountants noticed the statistical anomaly, they immediately assumed someone was cheating the casino.
Lumiere Casino in St. Louis
Accountants alerted the security team at the Lumiere Casino, who pulled up surveillance tapes of the slot machines during June 2 and June 3 of 2014. The tapes revealed a black-haired Caucasian man in a Polo zip-up. The suspect carried a square brown purse. What made him particularly interesting to security was the fact he did not tinker with the slot machines.
The slot machines were games like Pelican Pete and Star Drifter, older EGMs manufactured by Aristocrat Leisure out of Sydney, Australia. The suspect did target Aristocrat machines, while holding his iPhone close to the gaming screen.
How the Scam Worked
Even more interesting, the man would stay at the machine for a few minutes, then walk away. When he returned, that man’s lucky winning streak began. In his gaming sessions, the man could parlay a bankroll of $20 to $60 into a hold as large as $1,300. By targeting several such machines, he collected $21,000 in winnings over a 2-day period.
The most suspicious behavior the man exhibited was his propensity to hover his finger over the “Spin” button on the slot machine before tapping it. As a general rule, players click the Spin button repetitively, with little ritual. For a casino cheat, taking that kind of time between spins is particularly suspicious.
Missouri Gaming Commission’s Alert
After their investigation, the Lumiere Casino turned in their findings to the Missouri Gaming Commission on June 9. The gaming commission issued a statewide alert soon after. When the alert came, several other Missouri casinos learned that they had been hit by the same cheaters.
During their probes, the various casinos learned that a man held an iPhone near an Aristocrat Mark VI model slot machine shortly before he had a run of luck.
The Case of Martin Bliev
Law enforcement authorities tracked the man by his rental car transactions, because they could track him to the cars he drove into Missouri casino parking lots. Through that means, authorities learned he was Murat Bliev, a 37-year-old Russian citizen who lived in St. Petersburg, Russia at the time.
Further investigation showed that Martin Bliev had flown out of the United States on June 6, so he was presumed to be beyond the reach of American authorities. Unfortunately for Martin Bliev, the casino cheating agency he worked for soon sent him back to the United States for more scams, as they were unaware he had been identified.
Four Arrested at Hollywood Casino
In December 2014, Martin Bliev returned to Missouri to scam casinos again. This time, he met with three other men: Ivan Gudalov, Igor Larenov, and Yevgeniy Nazarov. After the four men entered the Hollywood Casino in St. Louis, authorities arrested them. Federal authorities charged them with conspiracy to commit fraud, because their casino scams spanned several US states.
Martin Bliev, Ivan Gudalov, and Igor Larenov eventually pleaded guilty and were sentenced to 2 years in federal prison. Yevgeniy Nazarov, a Florida resident and a native of Kazahkstan, sought religious asylum and continues to await sentencing. Aristocrat Leisure told WIRED that Nazarov “continues to assist the FBI with their investigations”, so there is evidence he is working with authorities to help track the St. Petersburg ring.
More about Russian Casino Cheats
The WIRED story on Russian casino cheats details the wide scope of the scamming operation, including revelations from Darrin Hoke of the international scope of the crimes. Hoke, who was the Surveillance Director at the Lake Charles, Louisiana-based L’Auberge du Lac Casino Resort’s former Director of Surveillance, tracked 25 casino cheats as far afield as Turkey.
As the story goes, Russian casino scams have been on the rise since 2009, when Vladimir Putin banned casino gambling in Moscow and most other parts of the Russian Federation. Putin thought a casino ban keep Georgian crime syndicates from scamming money from Russian casinos, but it also put the St. Petersburg casino cheat syndicate out of business. That syndicate instead began sending agents to foreign countries to cheat casinos.
The ability to do so required finding gaming machines and reverse engineering their software programs. By doing so, programmers for the syndicate could find ways to exploit the code in older electronic gaming machines like the Aristocrat Mark IV.
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