Watertight security ensures profitability of cruise ship casinos
Watertight security ensures profitability of cruise ship casinos

Mar 1, 1998 12:00 PM

You are the director of security on a gambling cruise ship. A patron, noticing a stairwell is unoccupied, tosses a banana peel down the steps, walks down and lies near it. When an employee walks by, the patron yells out that he is hurt. He envisions compensation for "pain and suffering" easily surpassing the best slot machine payouts.

Fortunately for the casino, you have the ship's stairwells covered with CCTV cameras; the "slip-and-fall" claim is easily debunked.

This scenario happened on a cruise ship serviced by security consulting and design engineer Terry Reader. As president of IEP Ltd., Scottsdale, Ariz., a security consulting, design and installation firm specializing in casinos, Reader is rarely surprised at the lengths some will go through to cash an ill-gotten check.

Reader says insurance fraud presents the biggest potential for loss on most cruise ships and riverboat casinos that must leave the dock; the moving boat, the steep, narrow stairwells on older boats turn some minds to thoughts of the easy excuse for an "accidental" slip, banana peel or no. Therefore, stairwells, the most popular location for "slip-and-falls," and other potential hazards are a major focus of security surveillance.

Ships put CCTV cameras on as many public access areas as they can afford to, says Michael Lord, president of Eye Tech CCTV Inc., Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., a company that provides security and consulting to cruise ship casinos. Lord also serves as director of operations for Casino Miami, a gaming ship that sails daily out of Miami.

"There is a strong potential for loss on the table games," says Lord, "but overall the biggest factor involved is probably liabilities, because of the cost of the insurance." Depending on the ship's record and the insurance company, the deductible cost per incident varies from $5,000 to $25,000, according to Lord. A ship that gets 10 claims a year with a $25,000 deductible would rack up a quarter of a million dollars in deductible costs plus the cost of the insurance policy.

"I am not saying they are all fraudulent claims," Lord says. "Some are legitimate. But some of them are exaggerated, and by using videotape the exaggeration can be limited in a court room."

On vessels that sail daily, the potential for insurance fraud is tremendous, agrees William Clifford, vice president of corporate compliance for Greater Atlantic Inc., Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., a company that leases space for casinos on cruise ships. "The trend at this point is CCTV on every piece of deck space, every public stairway. Videotape 24 hours a day, even when the vessel is not in operation, for theft prevention or people just wandering on the boat," he says, noting that CCTV in public areas for insurance fraud protection has come into vogue in the last few years. Some new cruise ships come equipped with CCTV in all public areas and access control systems, while some older ships with small casinos forgo CCTV altogether (see sidebar, page 57). "I am a huge advocate of CCTV in all public areas, not only on the boats, but also in hotels," says Clifford.

Watching the games Cheating the games does occur on gambling vessels from time to time, but surveillance methods differ from those of land-based casinos. Two big differences are lighting and space.

"Lighting on a ship is a nightmare," says Clifford. "The lighting on most of the vessels I have worked on is 24v, which is more a spotlight than a diffuse, infrared type of light. The hot spots caused by these very powerful 24v lights create havoc in trying to use a camera to read cards and chips on a table." The uneven light causes some areas to be overexposed or underexposed, leading to images that are either washed out or too dark. Many ships come from the shipyard with halogen lights, which also cause hot spots, says Lord.

In designing a gambling vessel casino, Clifford uses "some type of recessed fluorescent" for completely diffuse lighting.

Light from windows is another source of consternation. A heavy film on the windows cuts down on the light coming in, and curtains also help, but the constantly changing conditions due to time of day or orientation of the vessel still cause problems. From a surveillance standpoint, the best kind of windows are the ones that are painted on the walls to look like windows, jokes Reader.

Security managers turn to equipment to help them overcome the lighting obstacles. "In applications where there are windows and the light is constantly changing, we use auto-iris cameras from Sanyo and Panasonic with backlight compensation," says Lord.

Reader says lenses that allow for manual readjustment are also effective in challenging lighting conditions.

Lighting can be a bigger problem for color cameras, says Lord, and color cameras are a necessity for applications such as roulette tables and cage transactions, anywhere you have chips whose value is read by color. Ninety percent of cage transactions happen quickly, which can lead to mistakes. In an attempt to steal, scam artists provoke mistakes during chip or token transactions, and color images facilitate identification of these individuals.

Low ceilings Surveillance must also work with low ceilings that frustrate pan/tilt cameras. Ceiling height on most older vessels, many of which are converted ferry crossing and even oil rig supply ships, averages 7 or 8 feet, yet the cameras need to cover tables that can be 7 feet long and 5 feet wide.

In contrast, many land-based properties have 40- or 50-foot ceilings, which allow for greater coverage by fewer pan/tilt cameras. "When a camera is 40 feet high, one pan and tilt will pick up six to eight games," says Lord.

To compensate for low ceilings, multiple fixed cameras are used to provide complete coverage on many table games, particularly dice tables. Wide-angle lenses, now easier to find than in the past, also help, says Reader. Of the new camera technologies Reader employs, the latest is a 1/4-inch camera camcorder package from Hitachi.

Camera technology is changing faster than state regulations, notes Reader. It is no longer feasible for regulators to specify cameras by size, he says, because the resolution on the 1/3- and 1/4-inch cameras is as good as the 1/2-inch. Therefore, resolution should be the basis for camera selection, argues Reader, an observation he says revised regulations are beginning to reflect.

The Costa Victoria, operated by Greater Atlantic, has CCTV cameras set up on all the gaming tables, and here the ceiling is high enough to allow viewing of the entire gaming area, or pit. A casino manager can go into the surveillance room and observe any individual player on a table or take an overview of the entire pit. A cheat working multiple tables is more readily observed with an overview, says Clifford. "Even though they can see the camera domes, the cheat teams are not totally aware of what surveillance is doing; it gives our managers the edge," he says.

Thieves: nowhere to run The threat of losing money to thieves, as well as cheaters, is much lower on gambling vessels that leave the dock, according to Clifford. "On the cruise ship, there is no way for a bad guy of any kind - a cheat, a thief, whatever - to get off the vessel," he notes.

Still, the possibility of theft exists. Pickpockets and those who cannot resist the coins gathering in a slot machine tray represent the majority of the perpetrators, says Reader.

Once the ne'er-do-well is apprehended, a new set of problems arises, since escorting the offender out is not an option, and walking the plank is a thing of the past. "From the time an incident happens, you have to baby-sit the person until you get back to the dock, at which time the state authorities or local police can come in and make an arrest," notes Lord.

Ships have a special room set aside for those caught cheating or stealing, and the room - even the route to the room - is covered by CCTV surveillance.

"If somebody has to be restrained, I make sure there are witnesses," says Lord. "All actions from the time of the incident until the subject is handed over to local authorities are videotaped."

The threat is minimal while the ships are in port, because the casinos do not operate and all monies are locked up.

Rowdy customers a concern All casinos suffer the bane of unruly customers, and once gambling vessels leave the dock, security is stuck with them. Officers scan for potential problems during boarding, but situations do develop, many involving alcohol.

Occasionally, food and beverage workers will not spot an overly intoxicated customer until it is too late, says Lord. "We don't encourage that people drink a lot, but it does happen, and security is responsible for watching those passengers to make sure they get flagged so they don't have too much to drink." A security officer will go with the cocktail waitress to inform patrons when they have been cut off to make sure they are not going to get out of control.

To defuse such situations, Lord instructs his officers not to use physical force unless necessary. "Usually reasoning with somebody, even if they are drunk - lowering the tone of their voice instead of raising their voice - works." Occasionally someone can get out of control, but Lord says it is rare. "If it does become a physical situation, officers are told only to restrain the person for their own safety and the safety of everybody in the vicinity."

Security uses radio and backup cell phones to communicate with authorities on land, who will be waiting to take custody of those apprehended during a trip.

Unfortunately, the end of a cruise can lead to further confrontations. "They have to get off and buy another ticket and get back on if they want to continue gambling," notes Reader, and some customers argue the point.

Cheating the gamer Most cheats are identifiable by their methods of play and through Griffin books, which are compilations of known gaming cheats including mug shots and types of scams used, says Clifford. "Our casino managers are experienced," he says. "We bring our managers to our offices biannually for courses in the latest in cheating technology and what to be aware of when they go back to their staffs."

Security is trained to be aware of the mannerisms of those who cheat or steal, says Reader. "When a person starts to cheat, no matter how cool they are, they exhibit certain traits." A slot cheat, for example, has to look around before he starts his scam, usually a coin on a string, to see if he is being watched.

Lord says cheating is minimal on his ships, thanks in part to his reputation and through use of the Griffin books. On more than one occasion he has frustrated teams of cheaters who count cards at the blackjack tables. "We have had a known card counter with the Highland Count Team, and he was identified within one and a half blackjack shoes. His efforts were curtailed by getting no more than one deck from a six-deck shoe dealt to him. He got frustrated and decided it wasn't worth his effort." When the gambler was finally escorted off the ship, Lord told him that he and his count team had been identified through the Griffin books. He also told him not to come back.

A count team allows the members to establish operating capital (it often costs as much as $10,000 to join, says Lord) and to avoid a reputation by continually cycling new members through the casinos. "It creates a better potential to be able to get into the casino and sit down at a table, run the shoe down and bet accordingly," notes Lord.

Internal theft Clifford says a big threat to cruise ship casino profits is internal, or employee, theft, so Greater Atlantic has developed proprietary software that enables accounting of all money coming in from the different gaming areas.

"We also use staff from the cruise vessel - people not connected with the casino - in a key-control area," says Clifford. The casino employees cannot get at any of the money without employees from the cruise line being with them. The casino employees hold half the keys and the cruise line employees hold the other half. Everything is double locked, so a minimum of two people from two different departments are needed to open a cash box, and usually there is a minimum of five people when a box is opened - casino management, a casino cage person, two casino employees and at least one shipping line employee.

Finally, Clifford relies on experience to uncover wrongdoing. "We are familiar with what a vessel should do on certain runs at certain times of the year based on the passenger makeup," he says. "For instance, if we have a group of sales people on the vessel and the cruise is being paid for by the company, the sales people are going to be more likely to spend in the casino; based on our 25-year history, we know approximately what we can expect to be dropped." Conversely, management can expect the casino to handle less money on cruises geared to honeymooners or retirees, says Clifford.

Watch the money Security is the keeper of the gates for money flowing through the casino, and officers escort the chips that go to and from all the gaming areas, and they escort coin overage from the slot machines to the count rooms. At the end of the day, if the count doesn't come out right, if the casino's take is less than gaming norms dictate, it is security and surveillance that have failed.

Once the ship returns to dock for the night, security makes sure that all the passengers are disembarked. And, in the middle of the night, when the slots are silent and the dealers have gone home, the responsibilities of the security department continue, watching, waiting for the dawn of another smooth sailing, profitable day.

Cruise ships often forgo CCTV Despite their value in exposing fraudulent insurance claims, some cruise ship casinos do not include camera systems in the security mix, particularly older ships that find a CCTV retrofit too expensive and ships with casinos small enough to make cameras unnecessary, usually comprised of two to 12 table games and 20 to 100 slot machines.

Of the 20 ships that have gaming provided by Greater Atlantic only one has a CCTV system, the Costa Victoria. "We don't own the vessels we work on," explains William Clifford, vice president of corporate compliance for the company. "If we only lease space it is very difficult for us to put in an expensive CCTV system when we may be out of there in two or three years."

Tight security is practiced from the outset, which can offset problems that develop down the line. The ships that house casinos under the care of Greater Atlantic - ships operating throughout the world, sailing mainly out of ports in Europe and North Africa - have much tighter security procedures for boarding passengers than U.S.-flagged ships, which suits Clifford fine.

"On ships flying the British flag, the security is astounding. They know who I am when I go on a vessel, yet I have to go through all their security clearances," says Clifford. "I don't resent it at all; if they are doing that much on me, what are they doing on everybody else?"

In answer to his rhetorical question, Clifford notes that many of the cruise lines x-ray luggage, check for proper permits and passports and have passengers walk through a metal detector.

Michael Lord, president of Eye Tech CCTV, uses much the same procedure on riverboat cruises: The passengers must walk through a metal detector and show identification before they are issued a boarding pass.

Lord says security is also responsible for counting passengers as they board to see that ticketing agrees with the number of people boarded. "We don't want to leave the dock with a manifest that says there are 213 passengers on board when there are actually 240," he notes. "If anything happens, we want to make sure that our numbers agree."

Terry Reader, president of IEP Ltd., says security personnel keep an eye open for potential problem passengers during check-in. "The profile varies but you can spot the people who may be rowdy or intoxicated," he says. Unfortunately, Reader notes, there is no way to tell who is going to cheat. "All walks of life do that. You wouldn't let anybody on if you were worried about it."

Cameras often go unmonitored On many gambling vessels, surveillance tapes are reviewed after the boat docks, because the boats cannot give up cabin space for a surveillance crew.

However, the managers and supervisors can enter the surveillance room if something occurs, pull the tapes and replay them while the passengers are still on-board. Some cruise lines with exceedingly small operations let the cameras run automatically throughout the voyage, and review the tapes shoreside, says William Clifford, vice president of corporate compliance for Greater Atlantic Inc.

Gambling regulations for casino vessels Riverboats: Regulated by the state. Many states do not require riverboat casinos to leave the dock, asking only that they float. Some floating casinos are not riverboats at all. The casinos of Mississippi's Gulf Coast resort area, for example, float on barges and are difficult to distinguish from land-based casinos.

Cruise ships: Sail out to international waters; self-regulated.

"We have to go by maritime law and the master of the vessel, i.e. the captain of the boat, is the agency for law enforcement and is responsible for the safety of everybody on board and the way things are handled," says Michael Lord, president of Eye Tech CCTV Inc.

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