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Episode 773: Slot Flaw Scofflaws

Slot Machines at Caesar's Palace Lake Tahoe.
Nik Wheeler
Getty Images
Slot Machines at Caesar's Palace Lake Tahoe.

A few years ago, a rumor started going around the casino world. There was a crew of Russians hitting up casinos across the U.S. They'd roll up, find their favorite slot machine, play for a couple hours, and walk out with thousands of dollars. They didn't lose.

All of it was caught on camera, but there was no evidence that these men ever physically tampered with the slot machines. There was, however, something unusual about the way the men played: They always kept one hand buried in their pockets or in the bags they carried with them.

In July of 2014, Ron Flores, who oversees surveillance at the Pechanga Casino in California, witnessed one of these men in action. He called the California Department of Justice to pick him up. But Ron was not the only one who wanted to get to the bottom of it. So many casinos had gotten hit that the FBI had opened its own investigation into the case. The trail takes investigators deep inside the slot machine itself, and into some of the core vulnerabilities in machines all around us.

Today on the show, how the Russians figured out how to never lose at slot machines. And how the FBI cracked the case. It's a crime caper wrapped in some hard core computer science wrapped in hundred dollar bills.

Here's the Wiredarticleby Brendan Koerner that inspired this story.

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Corrected: May 25, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story implied that all email is encrypted. Only some email is encrypted end-to-end by default.
Nick Fountain produces and reports for Planet Money. Since he joined the team in 2015, he's reported stories on pears, black pepper, ice cream, chicken, and hot dogs (twice). Come to think of it, he reports on food a whole lot. But he's also driven the world's longest yard sale, uncovered the secretive group that controls international mail, and told the story of a crazy patent scheme that involved an acting Attorney General.
Keith Romer has been a contributing reporter for Planet Money since 2015. He has reported stories on risk-pooling among poker players, whether it's legal to write a spin-off of the children's book Goodnight Moon and the time one man cornered the American market in onions. Sometimes on the show, he sings.