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August 1, 2014

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Gaming:

Casinos burned by gamblers who skip out on markers

After high roller Andrew Pham racked up more than $1 million in gambling debts more than four years ago in Las Vegas, the seven casinos stiffed by him turned to the Clark County district attorney’s office for help. By the time the dust settled eight months ago, Pham had pleaded guilty, was ordered to pay the debt and was placed on informal probation with an order to “stay out of trouble.”

He has not yet repaid any of the money.

Another gambler who owed about $1 million has been repaying casinos $7,000 a month for more than three years — and is not expected to make good on his full debt before 2019. Meanwhile, he’s known to still be gambling in town.

Officials at the Las Vegas Hilton, one casino owed money, complain of what they call an egregious delay in restitution for an undisputed crime.

Such is the challenge in a city that regularly extends credit to its biggest gamblers: Getting them to make good on their IOUs when they lose.

Although owing someone money isn’t a crime, signing an IOU worth $250 or more without money to back it up is felony theft under a 1983 Nevada law, which defines casino markers as legally binding documents like checks.

Some casino executives complain the criminal justice system is unreliable in prosecuting deadbeat gamblers because it is plagued by delays, favors lengthy payment plans over trials or jail time, and is too overworked to stay on top of gamblers’ repayment plans.

Nevada courts are “effectively inviting future criminal conduct in this state and sending a clear message to all tourists that fraud in Nevada is an acceptable activity,” said Lou Dorn, Las Vegas Hilton general counsel.

Such concerns have escalated in the recession, as unpaid gambling debts are a bigger problem.

The district attorney processes about 100 marker cases each week and thousands a year involving big Strip resorts and smaller, neighborhood casinos. That volume has increased by 5 to 10 percent in the recession, peaking in 2009.

With the recent exception of the Hilton, casinos are typically hush-hush about their dealings with high rollers, including debt collection. Still, many face the same problem. Pham owes money to the Golden Nugget, Planet Hollywood, Treasure Island, Mirage, Venetian and Green Valley Ranch Resort, all of which sought the district attorney’s help.

Like an interest-free loan

Some casino giants have tightened credit policies since the boom years, when casinos could more easily absorb losses, and gamblers had more money to spend. But that hasn’t helped them collect on debts from the flush years.

Nevada casinos commonly grant credit to gamblers who provide evidence of sizable bank accounts to cover the IOU — or if they have a credit history with the casino that indicates debt repayment. By signing markers, the gambler essentially receives an interest-free loan from the casino with flexible terms. That makes them unusual in the business world and a unique risk for casinos, which write off as much as 5 percent of their debts — sometimes amounting to millions per year — as uncollectable. Big casinos might have hundreds of unpaid markers in the collection process at any time.

Although a gambler’s first marker triggers an application process and a bank inquiry akin to taking out a personal loan, subsequent markers involve little paperwork other than a check of the person’s gambling history with Central Credit, a credit reporting bureau for the casino industry.

In some cases, casinos will extend gamblers additional credit after they get a nod from a casino host, who is eager to keep the customer gambling — and whose pay depends in part on what the customer loses at the tables.

Generosity in offering markers is a key casino marketing tool on the Strip, where as much as 40 percent of wagering volume occurs on credit, said Jeff Voyles, a casino management professor at UNLV and industry consultant. Well-heeled gamblers may prefer signing markers for the convenience of not having to carry cash, with their casino credit showing up on pit bosses’ computers.

To avoid antagonizing players and keep them coming back, casinos generally give gamblers several months to repay debts that can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But when they don’t, casinos send a demand letter and can turn to the district attorney’s bad-check unit, which prosecutes such crimes. Or they may file a civil suit, sometimes in addition to prosecution.

Collecting can be expensive

Click to enlarge photo

Bernie Zadrowski

Casinos can’t dictate how a case is handled, but any recovered debt goes to the casino. There’s no formula on when or whether to settle a marker case, as each gambler’s circumstance is different, said Bernie Zadrowski, who leads the district attorney’s bad-check unit.

Sometimes cases are delayed as the parties negotiate payment plans, or because the courts are clogged.

The Hilton, which is increasingly feeling the pinch of unpaid gambling debts in the recession, is not shy about complaining about the process.

“There’s no question a crime has occurred but we have to deal with years and years of continuances,” Dorn said. “And there’s no investigation or analysis (by the court) to determine whether (the debtor) can only afford $7,000 a month rather than $70,000 a month.”

Dorn said the Hilton only turns to the district attorney if the gambler can’t or won’t negotiate payment or can’t be found. Prosecutors can seek arrest warrants but few deadbeats are taken into custody, because they are not considered flight risks or dangers to the community.

Once in court, the next challenge is identifying the gambler’s assets.

Many casinos’ big debtors “are wealthy people who have assets hidden all over the place,” Dorn said.

Hiring a collection agency can get expensive: They charge at least 30 percent of the collected debt. And recovery is uncertain.

That’s in part why most Las Vegas casinos use the district attorney — and Nevada law — as a low-risk way to go after gamblers. The bad-check unit doesn’t charge casinos for its services; it is funded entirely by the defaulting gamblers, who must pay 10 percent of whatever is recovered.

Some defense attorneys call it a conflict of interest for a public agency and an unwarranted expenditure of public resources to prosecute gamblers whose actions shouldn’t be criminalized.

Dorn’s beef is that the system is sluggish and ineffective, with long delays, prosecutors settling for cents on the dollar and judges who are too lenient.

Marker cases are taken as serious as other criminal cases, said Chief Judge Karen Bennett-Haron of Las Vegas Justice Court.

“I realize that people don’t get their money as fast as they would like,” she said, “but we’re not a collections agency for the casinos. We use a lot of resources on these bad-check cases, and we hear them at the same time as others” involving violent crimes.

In a 2008 letter to the Hilton, then-Assistant District Attorney Christopher Lalli addressed the casino’s concerns with the case of Mario Ganon, the gambler paying off his debt $7,000 a month. Lalli said his office has “vigorously opposed defense motions to stall or delay the (Ganon) case over the last two years” and has “argued against allowing these low monthly payments and further delays ... though the court has failed to agree with us.”

Christopher Lalli

Christopher Lalli

Zadrowski doesn’t assign blame for the slow process. “We’re competing for court time with thousands of other cases. So yes, there are going to be significant delays. And there are good attorneys who know how to defend these cases. It’s a system that doesn’t always produce a product of justice that offers immediate gratification.”

A problem of their own creation?

Some gamblers find themselves behind bars.

One man is expected to serve several months in a Nevada jail after failing to repay about $6,000 to two Las Vegas casinos. Records show the gambler has unpaid marker cases on file with the district attorney and a conviction in another state — circumstances that typically mean harsher sentences for debtors.

“We’ve got limited prison space, and usually you’re dealing with people who have no criminal record,” Zadrowski said. “These cases are generally handled like other theft-type cases where the person is given the opportunity for restitution” rather than jail time.

And as is typical with similar cases, the district attorney’s staff usually will first offer a plea-bargain — say, a guilty plea to a gross misdemeanor coupled with unsupervised probation and a repayment plan that carries no punishment for unpaid debt.

Some gamblers refuse to pay because they feel they were mistreated by the casino or want to get back at the place where they lost their shirt, said Greg Knapp, who ran the bad-check unit until 2005. Those gamblers, he said, sometimes try to game the system by delaying payment — while paying their attorneys tens of thousands of dollars on their defense.

Marker cases can be thorny for prosecutors, he said.

“Theft is a crime of specific intent. I don’t think anyone takes out a marker with intent of losing and not paying it back.”

“These are people who take risks and play wilder than the rest of us,” Knapp said. The economy plays a role, he said, as some gamblers have lost their means of repaying the debt when the stock market fell or in real estate investments gone sour.

Casinos create their own problems, Knapp added, by overextending credit and relying on the district attorney to clean up the mess. Some clients have received hundreds of thousands, even millions’ worth of credit when the casinos knew the gambler owed money at other Las Vegas resorts, he said.

“Why is a casino extending credit without knowing whether the person has the funds to pay it? That’s pretty stupid,” Knapp said.

Pham accumulated more than $1 million in marker debt at more than half a dozen Las Vegas casinos over a two-year period. He was a longtime player with no outstanding debts when he took out a new marker in October 2005, according to the Hilton’s testimony before a county grand jury. The casino extended him additional credit three months later and possibly before it tried to collect on the first marker.

Some members of the grand jury that indicted Pham were baffled about why casinos don’t collect soon after the marker money is gambled, and wondered why some casinos granted Pham additional markers when he owed money elsewhere.

The Hilton says it’s careful to not extend credit to gamblers who have an uncollected marker at another casino — and that most of the big casinos operate the same way.

“We’re pretty responsible here at the Hilton,” with a collection success rate of about 99 percent, collections manager Alex Montanarella said.

Still, the Hilton has at least $6 million in uncollected debt, a piece of the hundreds of millions of dollars owed to casinos across Las Vegas. That’s also money going untaxed by a state in financial need, Montanarella said.

There’s no guarantee of restitution even after a marker case is prosecuted because of the inherent complexities of casino credit and the gambler’s particular circumstances, Zadrowski said. “We’re not bill collectors ... we’re a prosecution unit.”

That can be a difficult task, as a successful conviction requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the gambler intended to defraud the casino — a higher burden than simply indicating that the gambler owes money. Proof that the gambler didn’t have enough money in his bank account to cover the debt when he signed the marker may not be enough to convict, as the gambler’s cash flow might be in flux, Zadrowski said.

The Hilton relies more heavily on the bad-check unit than some of its bigger and wealthier counterparts on the Strip. Court records show the casino is owed more than $600,000 by gamblers who pleaded guilty and were placed on informal probation, with no follow-up on payment. Several Hilton debtors have court-imposed payment plans, including one gambler’s monthly payments of $200 on a $138,000 marker that will take more than 50 years to pay off.

Casinos not sympathetic victims

Foreign debtors are the casino’s biggest nuisance, as they can more easily hide assets in countries that don’t cooperate in releasing bank records. Ganon is one example, and has transferred property out of his name to his family in Mexico, Hilton executives say.

“These defendants have no motivation to settle, particularly when they’re from a foreign country where civil prosecution and finding assets is very difficult,” Dorn said.

Attorneys for Ganon, who also represented Pham, could not be reached for comment.

Las Vegas casinos are owed at least $80 million from gamblers in China and Hong Kong alone. That figure represents the amount of uncollected restitution from Chinese gamblers who, like other foreign nationals, can’t be extradited for prosecution because of the red tape and expense involved, Zadrowski said.

The bad-check unit recovered about $12 million for casinos last year, down from a peak of $47 million the previous year. Zadrowski said his hardworking staff is “doing a lot more with less” these days.

“Multibillion-dollar corporations don’t make great (sympathetic) victims,” he said. “But there are real victims of crime here,” he said.

And yet, casino officials such as Dorn believe the hammer of the law has grown soft in Nevada — a dangerous prospect, he said, for the state and its chief industry.

“If the Legislature tells you this is a crime, then you prosecute it as a crime,” he said. “We’d rather not see any money for a year and have them prosecute the guy rather than have it dragged out for years with these piecemeal payments.”

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  1. Casino markers are an effective tool to get extra money from broken gamblers rather than hoping to get new players with a bag full of money walking through their doors.
    In the heat of the action, after suffering a heavy losing streak, players tend to reactions they would never do under normal circomstances. And here's comes the tricky part. Is it ethical to give markers to broken gamblers, in spite of getting additional money from such people or is it better send them home and have them come back a few weeks after?

    Well, it comes to the point to think about the entire idea of giving out such huge markers to gamblers. People that sign for such big markers may have other outstanding debt they can't or don't want to pay back so soon, so what's the point? The casinos owe money to the bank and that's money the casinos can't pay at this time, and the gamblers owe money to the casino they can't pay. So who owes how much to whom???

    Just to inform the fine readers of this post: In most countries world wide, marker play is not allowed for a reason. And I think for once this marker idea should be re-considered and perhaps be forbidden.

    From Switzerland

  2. The gentleman who is disturbed about the expenditure of taxpayer funds to prosecute delinquent casino markers is misinformed. The Bad Check Unit is completely self supporting and does not cost the taxpayers anything to operate.

    Jordan Ross, Constable
    Laughlin Township
    www.laughlinconstable.org

  3. @ Jordan_Ross: Thanks for contributing and sharing your comment. However, if a guy goes in prison for non repaying casino markers willingly, then he costs the tax payer substantial money, or does he not? The prisons may be there and the guards be on a monthly paycheck , as well as all utilities, ok, but the food this guy eats while in prison, this all costs money. And somebody must pay for that, or not?
    As for me, marker play should not be accepted by law.
    From Switzerland

  4. Way back, in the 70s, I owned a small tavern. On more than one occasion, I was asked to run a bar tab. I always declined. Some complained that if I did not run a tab, they would no longer patronize my business. My stock answer was: "If I run a tab, eventually I will not get paid. That way, I will lose not only the patron but the money owed as well, so I do not run a tab for anyone." I stuck to that rule and never lost a dime. Whether I ever lost a customer, well, that's another story, but I never lost any sleep over it.

  5. A running tab works to the contrary of the income of a barman, it is obvious. A guy that orders another bud that costs 2.75 or so usually leaves 4 dollars on the counter, leaving 1.25 tip to the barman. Percentagewise that's about 40-45 per cent. If, on the other hand, a guest is allowed to have a running tab and now this guy has 4 or 5 beers over the course of 2 hours, then the grand total will be at about 15 or 16 dollars. Then, this guy tips perhaps 2 dollars, but definetely not 5 or 10, unless he likes the girl serving him the beers all the time.
    From this point of view, it makes sense for the owner of a tavern not to accept running tabs, not only for the "no show" reason, but also in order to protect the barman's income to a degree.

    Where I live, it is common sense that people have common tabs. In fact, I haven't been to any place that wants you to pay instantly. This is only done so in clubs where people go to the bar only to fetch their drink and then disappear in the crowd. In a typical bar or restaurant, people pay before leaving the facility. It happens very seldom that a guy leaves without paying.

    From Switzerland

  6. It is difficult for me to feel sorry for the casinos. They shouldn't be giving out markers at all. Credit should be for life's necessities used as a last resort. Certainly not to people who have been gaming with casino supplied free alcoholic beverages. I believe real contracts are void if signed while a signator has been drinking.

  7. I agree with the first post by Boris.
    There is a definite predatory aspect to the casino providing markers to gamblers, especially to those with a clear gambling problem. It is not much different, in my opinion, from the shady lending practices which encouraged the gullible to buy more house than they could obviously afford.
    Markers should be treated just like Promissory Notes, simply a promise to pay, with no extraordinary State-assisted remedies, and with absolutely no criminal penalties. Casinos would be much more prudent in giving out markers, and the gambling public would be much better served.

  8. Easy, easy solution.

    Stop giving out markers.

  9. Ban all markers, let them write a real check. Chips and markers are gimmicks to brainwash gamblers into thinking they are not spending real money.

    The Nevada DA's have other things to do rather than chase down casino debtors. Time for DA Rogers, who gets campaign donations from casinos, to resign. It is a conflict of interest for him to deal with marker debts.

    Get this guy who skipped out on his marker and we will donate more to your next campaign. The FBI should be brought in to investigate all corruption.

  10. This story in much ado about nothing. Bottom line, the casinos want to have the marker system and that being said it ain't going anywhere. With 40% of casino revenue due to credit, i.e. markers, one has to wonder how much of that volume would be lost if they went to an all cash basis. With the business as weak as it is, now is not the time for that kind of experiment. Extension of credit by most businesses is considered to be a sound business practice providing the appropriate due diligence is performed in evaluating credit risk. The reason these casinos (especially the marginal properties) are now squealing like stuck pigs is no doubt because credit standards became excessively lax during the boom years (when they were making money hand over fist) and now they need every dime to service their own debt, pay expenses, etc. Some credit losses are to be expected even if those extending credit are doing everything right. It doesn't seem to me that there is any crisis requiring action such as tougher enforement by the courts through enhanced penalties. My suggestion, take your Internal Revenue Code section 166 business bad debt write off (which can be done even in the case of partial worthlessness if the debt in question is a business bad debt) in those cases where it is justified and re-evaluate your lending practices.

  11. I'm sorry FromBellvilleCanada but I completely disagree "Markers should be treated just like Promissory Notes, simply a promise to pay, with no extraordinary State-assisted remedies, and with absolutely no criminal penalties." A promissory note? I don't think so. While the casinos certainly deserve some blame in their lax practices of giving markers out to high risk players it certainly isn't a license to the players to simply skip out on paying their debts. That's called theft! By all means law enforcement should be involved or in this case the local DA.

    And let me tell you, if these weren't the corporate times of today all these arguments would be moot. Were these the times of Benny Binion no one would be strolling out of the casino able bodied if they descided they didn't feel like paying thier marker! LOL

  12. Samjung, I'm not talking about europe, I'm talking about Las Vegas, where ending or curtailing the marker system now, would have an adverse impact on the casinos here in Las Vegas. In the sense that it would be an experiment here in Las Vegas, a state with 15% plus percent unemployment. Clear enough for you now, do you get it now??? Or perhaps you would like to have all the gambling statutes relating to the collectability of gambling debts abolished and go back to the common law under the Statute of Anne???

  13. Statutue of Anne utterly ridiculous in this case samjung? When it has been embraced enthusiastically by most states in this country for over 300 years? How so sir? You are clearly uninformed when it comes to the law and history gaming in Nevada, particularly as it pertains to collectability of gambling debts. Let me attempt to educate you. Suggest you read the following:

    NRS 1030-"The common law of England so far as it is not repugnant to or in conflict with the constitution and laws of this state, shall be the rules of decision in all courts of this state.

    It was not until 1983 that the Nevada Legislature changed the law to allow the casinos the right to collect through the courts. THIS DID NOT CHANGE THE COMMON LAW OF NEVADA (where it was not in conflict with these statutes).

    NRS 463.0129(a) states,"The Legislature hereby finds, and declares to be public policy of this state that the gaming industry is vitally important to the economy of the state and the general welfare of it's inhabitants."

    That being the case, the legislature has even seen fit to enact a statute (NRS 463.368-6(a)) that precludes a mental or behavioral disorder relating to gambling being a defense to an action by a casino to recover a gambling debt.

    For those who oppose gambling, extension of casino credit and court enforcement of gambling debts, Utah is not too far up I-15 and Hawaii is not a bad option either.

  14. NO PROBLEM, ASK OBAMA FOR A BAILOUT. (FINITE)

  15. samjung, I know this will be lost on such an obtuse fellow such as yourself but I was referring to the historical and legal context in which the statutes that were enacted in Nevada to allow casinos to collect gambling debts using the courts. Prior to 1983, the Statute of Anne was very much in effect in Nevada and gambling debts, markers, etc. were void and unenforceable. The 1983 change allowed the casinos to use the courts to collect in certain circumstances, with other gambling debts (e.g. through bookies) still subject to the Statute of Anne. These changes in 1983 were prompted by a court case that required the inclusion of winnings represented by a marker in gross income for tax purposes, whereas before it was not includable in gross income until collected. Your point, to the extent that you have one, that issuance of a marker is loan sharking, like much of what you have to say is absurd. No interest is charged if the customer pays within the agreed upon time frame. Oh and I've never worked at Starbucks as a Barista, have drank a few coffees there, I'll admit to that. Is that the best you can do?

  16. You can go to a store and write a check (if anyone still does that anymore) and the check is electrinically scanned and the funds instantly taken from your checking account. Same when I write a check to the dentist or pay a phone bill, etc. many times they actually hand the "cnacelled" check right back. It seems that a casino could use this technology to tap the bank account right away to assure the funds are there. One can rightfully argue if it's ethical or not. Probably not a lot different than charging an exhorbitant $10 atm fee for a low roller who wants to get a hundred or 2 at a casino atm, which likely is then promptly left in the casino. If I need an ATM for any reason (I rarely do, and never for gambling money), I'll walk across the street to the nearest bank. If it happens to be a bank other than mine, the fee is usually $1 or $2.
    My guess is that there are many "regulars" who use markers, and routinely pay as agreed. But just like hot checks, you only read about the bad apples in the bunch. If credit is extended on a regular basis, and paid as agreed, then there is "no harm, no foul, other than the fact that some fool might have lost a wad of $$ to the casino.
    The casinos are full of guys like me who do a little gambling, and search out the best deals. They might even make a few bucks that way. The money is really made off of the handful of folks in the roped off areas using markers to wager more in an hour than I make in a year.
    I'm not in favor of markers, but I understand that a casino may rely on them for their "better" customers, to bring them in the door, and keep them there.

  17. I'll just say this. I've been at a table playing and loosing and drinking. They ask me if I want another marker from the time I bought in sober. I've seen the pit boss call for the waitress for me without asking. After a few drinks they ask me again if I'd like another marker. If I were on a jury I'd weigh the facts of the case before jumping to an immediate conclusion. Drinks and an offer for another loan? I'm careful but I don't have much pitty for the casions in these cases. We don't get home or car loans when we are full of alchohol and some of us shouldn't be offered another marker, either. I pay mine. But it's truly a dirty business.

  18. lightfoot...
    Well said, sir. Well said.

  19. Samsung: loan-sharking (noun): the practice of lending money at exorbitant rates of interest.

    Source: Merriam Webster's dictionary

    Yet, according to you a casino that issues a marker which is interest free if paid back during the agreed upon period to do so is engaging in loan sharking.

    Dismissed.

  20. Lightfoot hit the nail squarely on the head.

  21. It seems that the casinos want to pass all the risk to the public (tax payer), just as the banks and investment companies have done in the past. Perhaps they need to hire a "risk management" team to evaluate the overall risk they are taking when they issue markers. The executives do not appear to understand leverage very well. It's bad business to loan what you can't afford to lose just as it is to gamble (risk) more than you can afford to lose.

  22. A very effective tool for casinos is offering bank wire options to the real big players. I mean, hey, who walks around with 250,000 usd in cash when planning to play some 500 dollar black jack at Bellagio? So the casinos let you wire the cash into the Bellagio bank account, favor of players card number bla bla bla, name John Smith. And the system works. Once the money is in the account, the player has enough credit line to gamble.

    As a part of responsible gambling it's to know what your personal limit is. Once this is said, it's always recommended for the player wishing to taking it up to the highest level to send the money first and then not go further than this personal set limit. Markers are not good unless they are in reasonable limits and can be paid within 72 hours or so. Thse super grand size casino loans should be banned. You can kill the golden goose over night when the goose has a bad 2 hours and will never return in the future. Advanced bank wires or bank wires during the stay (usually proceeded within 24 hours) should give the player enough flexibility to satisfy his gambling hunger.

    From Switzerland

  23. More facts to know about:

    It would be interesting to know how many markers are out there at present time. The grand figure would probably astonish many of us. Plus the number of bad/busted markers is also quite interesting. I would reckon that the ratio beteen "bad" (busted, not paid) and "good" markers are about 25 per cent, if not more than that. Obviously the casinos write the bad markers off just like debt restructuring, knowing that besides hot air and some free comps they did not actually give anything to the gambler but a few hours of action. What's really bad is the markers that are taken and cashed out somewhat, although I am sure the casinos nowadays found pretty sophisticated methods not to pay a gambler in debt any cash amount until the last marker is being paid.
    However, the player can pass the 100 dollar chips to a friend who will turn them in at the cage.

    Some casinos over here let the players using their credit card only gamble with special marked chips. They also pay them the winners with specially marked chips. So, this player can only get real cash once the "credit card advanced pay" is being cleared. That's a very effective tool, too.

    From Switzerland

  24. If the customer shows they have money in the bank, why not do a wire transfer to the casino.

    Lightfoot is right....I do not think you can enter into a binding contract with an intoxicated person...

  25. If a casino issues a $100 marker and it is promptly lost back to the casino.....have they lost $100....or have they lost the opportunity to make $100.....wonder how much of these outstanding markers were won back by the casino.

  26. Lets get something straight. It is against the law (as it should be) to pass a bad check. It is not against the law to not repay a marker. The casinos get around this by printing the words "Pay to the Order of" on the marker, and then claim that the marker is a check. This is not true, The marker is not drawn against a specific bank account, and is not a check.

    This is where ths scam, supported by casino supported clout, comes in. Someone needs to go to the proper courts to get this scam stopped.