Friday, September 11, 2009

Counterfeit Casino Chips at the Wynn Macau

Casinos have come a log way in combating counterfeit chips. Nowadays many casinos have equipped themselves with RFID technology, which is supposed to put an end to many of the scams involving manipulation and counterfeiting of casino chips. However, despite the RFID technology, counterfeit chips were still discovered at the Wynn Casino in Macau. How is that even possible?

First let's start with the news report that was published in the Hong Kong Standard and in the Macau Daily Blog.

According to these articles, six Chinese gamblers were nabbed at the Wynn Casino for passing counterfeit chips. Unfortunately the news articles are quite badly written, unclear and poorly researched, so it is hard to make much sense out of them. According to these articles these Chinese gamblers (for the mainland) were caught with a total of 38 high-denomination counterfeit chips, valued at HK$10,000 (US$1,290). They've already managed to pass 16 of them, but were then caught because they (allegedly) tried to pass the 22 remaining chips. What is mind boggling is that the chips even made it passed the gaming table(s). According to the news articles the gang managed to pass the 16 chips all the way to the cage, where they were later detected thanks to (I quote) "a more delicate detector in the cage." What's that all about? Casinos use less delicate detectors on the tables, but are equipped with "more delicate" detectors in the cage? Nonsense! There's not such thing as a less delicate and/or more delicate RFID detector. These detectors are just standard RFID readers that are all connected to the one and the same central database, run by one piece of computer software.

The article also mentions that the chips managed to pass infrared detectors. Well, in this day and age infrared stamps are no longer the most secure feature, due to availability. Also, at least in theory, there should be absolutely no reason to add infrared identification technology to casino chips that are already fitted with RFID tags. This would be like putting a tattoo on a child, so that his mother could recognize him. So, due to the mention of infrared stamps we may be lead to believe that the gaming tables at the Wynn are not fitted with RFID readers. Perhaps the tables are only fitted with infrared readers and the cage is the only place that's equipped with RFID readers. How else could RFID chips possibly go past the tables? But this is just speculation, based on an article that is clearly not well-written.

Further down, the article says, "detector in the casino cage found the 16 fake chips, which contained lower-value microchips." This makes no sense, either, if the gaming tables are fitted with RFID readers. RFID readers work in such way that as soon as a chip, or a bunch of them, are placed within reach of the reader, the system detects which chips they are. RFID tags work in such way that each and every chip has its own unique ID, like a fingerprint. So, the exact same RFID tags are used for any value chip, but since each RFID tag has its own unique fingerprint, the software checks each ID with the database and immediately determines exactly which chip it is - not only the value of the chip, but also the exact ID of the chip. So, if a chip has been placed on the layout, the system knows the entire history of that particular chip, i.e. which table it came from, when was it last in the cage, how often was it wagered, etc. So, in other words, if one were to take a white chip and paint it black, the croupier may see a black chip, but the system would read it as a white chip. Nothing would happen until the croupier tried to pay a winning wager (in the event of a win). At that time, the system would detect that the croupier is overpaying a winning wager, even if the croupier had no idea that the wagered chip was a fake. Basically, RFID systems in casinos are set up in such way that these discrepancies are immediately detected at the table, in real time, when transactions are made. So, there is no way that a fake chip could ever get passed the table and make it all the way to the cage.

This also means that it is virtually impossible to make a fake RFID chip from scratch. Even if one were to fabricate one, and install the exact same RFID tag inside the chip, the fake chip would not pass. The only way it could pass is if someone on the inside had access to the system. This person would have to enter the fake ID into the database, so when the fake chip showed up anywhere where the readers are used, the system would have no idea it was fake. Since, historically speaking, most casino scams always involved inside help, this is not a purely theoretical possibility. There is no such thing as a 100% foolproof technology.

So, what conclusion can we make from the news article? The only conclusion I can make is that the gaming tables at the Wynn are not fitted with RFID readers. Either that, or the person that wrote the article didn't have his/her facts straight.

Now, this all brings us to the question, can RFID technology be defeated by professional casino cheats? The short answer is, anything's possible.

One of the early scams involving the manipulation of RFID chips never made it to the gaming tables. What I mean is that the companies developing RFID technology, for casinos, already thought of this scam, and took measures to prevent it, before the cheats had a way to test it in casinos. This hypothetical scam involved the use of a counterfeit chip, not fitted with any RFID tags. So, how would it even be possible to pass such a fake?

First, let us understand how RFID readers work, on gaming tables.

On a baccarat table, for example, the players are seated around the table, placing their wagers into the betting areas. Each and every betting are is fitted with a reader, under the cloth. When any amount of RFID-tagged chips is placed on top of that reader, the reader picks it up. But, here's the thing... The chips don't have to be placed literally on top of the reader. The reader actually picks up an RFID tag anywhere within the range of that particular reader (or RFID tag). This means that the reader would idea if an RFID chip had been placed under the table. Since the players are seated all around the table, any player is in perfect position to place a genuine RFID chip on his knee and press it against the bottom of the table, right under the reader. The reader picks up the information and tells the system that such-and-such chip has been placed down as a wager. This only makes sense if the player places a counterfeit chip on top of the table, at the same time. So, this would be done by mixing-in a fake chip amongst one or two genuine chips, on top of the table, while pressing a genuine chip against the bottom of the table, at the same time. Visually, the dealer sees that the player wagered three chips (for example) and the reader also picks up the same information. So, if the wager wins, the dealer pays the player the appropriate amount in genuine chips and the system doesn't know that one of the chips was a fake. But if the wager lost, the dealer picks up a fake chip.

Here's the problem.

First of all, some casinos also use RFID readers inside of the chip tray. So, if a wager lost, the discrepancy would be detected immediately, as soon as the dealer placed the losing wagers into the chip tray. But, RFID technology is sold as optional features. This means that a casino can pick where to install the readers. In theory a casino could opt for having readers under the betting spots and no readers under the chip tray. It boggles the mind why any casino would ever consider such option, but (at least in theory) anything's possible.

But even if a gaming table in some casino is not fitted with RFID readers in the chip tray, there is another problem. If a fake chip ends up in the tray, it will be detected as soon as the dealer uses that chip to pay any legitimate winning bet. So, the lifespan of this fake chip may be very short.

But as I mentioned before, the developers of RFID technology already thought of this hypothetical scam, so they came up with a solution. All the RFID enabled tables have shields under the readers. So, if you place a genuine RFID chip under the table, the reader doesn't pick it up.

Are there any other possible scams that involve RFID chips? Well, I am told that many casinos that acquired the RFID technology have had problems with it. I even know one actual casino that disabled their RFID readers because they had too many problems with the technology. I know which casino it is, but I will not divulge the information here. It would seem that the RFID technology works well in laboratory conditions, but when it hits the casino floor there are bugs that slow down the operation. And in casino land, when you slow down the tempo, it is the long term equivalent of shutting down the joint a few weeks in a year. And a casino that is not open for business is losing money; losing by not wining to its full potential. And since casino business is all about money, some have come to the conclusion that the cost of RFID technology goes beyond what they pay to acquire it.


Anonymous said...

I think your last paragraph is the main issue RFID is just not reliable at the moment. As far as I am aware it has been a failure in both Wynn Macau and Galaxys Starworld. Until it becomes more reliable it will be a waste of money.

The only use at the moment would be for fills and credits. Given that the Macau casinos and I guess Vegas have 100's fills and credits it would save a lot of time if the values could be confirmed by RFID rather than the dealer before being placed in the chip tray.

Anonymous said...

While this is an old post, many may still come here as a result of a search so I'll post anyways.

The speculation that casinos typically place RFID under the betting spots is wrong. RFID is an extremely expensive investment for a casino and most only add one reader per table, either in the chip rack, or most often, in an area right in front of the dealer. Since tables have a longer lifespan than the felt that covers them and casinos may want to change from a 7 player layout to a 6 player layout, it is unwise to place a reader under each player's area. Further, there is a margin of error in the readers and the ones in the vault are in fact more accurate and powerful than those at the table. (I.E. the ones in the vault may read many racks of chips at once). Lastly, when casinos implement RFID technology, they typically only do so on higher value chips, due to the added costs.

Also, IR paint and other dyes are a very valid and reasonable security feature. They are very cheap and add to the difficulty in counterfeiting a chip. The more security features, the better, regardless of the difficulty in duplicating them.