This is the true account of my job in an offshore internet casino.
|Sex, Lies, and Video Poker
The True Story of My Job in an Offshore Internet Casino
By Carl L. Hutton
Have you ever dreamed of a new life? A life set in an exotic location and brimming with adventure. A life where your past failures and future responsibilities are quickly forgotten. A life worthy of a Jimmy Buffet song.
In the spring of 2005 I had just such a dream as I sat at my computer and paroused alluring travel pages. Paradise was offered in the form of attentive latin women amidst a tropical backdrop. Coleridge wrote of a night when he slept and dreamt of a strange and beautiful flower and when he awoke the flower was in his hand. I believe we are all granted three Coleridge moments in our lives. I used one of mine when I clicked the link “Jobs for Native English Speakers in beautiful San Jose, Costa Rica.”
“Sir please fill these out before we land.” The flight attendants Latina accent interrupted my stare through the looping clouds. The swiss cheese cumulus provided glimpses of the setting sun. A series of quilt work avenues wound through rolling hills in a noticeably primitive fashion. I read the immigration and customs form quickly until reaching, “The purpose of your visit.” I had accepted a job in Costa Rica, however, my legal status to work in the country was uncertain. I remembered telling Robert, the internet casino manager who had recruited me, that I was concerned about the difficulty in getting legal residency. He replied, “We'll take care of that for you. In this country you just have to know who to bribe.” I paused and then checked the box marked tourist.
The following afternoon I reported to work. The office was located on the seventh floor of a modern building. As I stepped off the elevator I was greeted by armed security who quickly ushered me into a private office. Here I met Amit one of a handful of Indian executive types who ran the company with the stereotypical discipline of an Indian sweat shop. He took an unusual interest in my ethnicity. I responded to questions about my background by stating, “I am among the grandchildren of American pioneers who made their way west in covered wagons. My name is British though I am very likely of mixed European ancestry.” In a voice combining the high pitch of the Simpson's convenience store manager and the cold drawl of the godfather he replied, “We brought you here because you're an American. If anyone asks you say I'm an American.”
I began training that day learning the basics of casino gambling. Many of my coworkers spoke English as a second language. They would occasionally miss the nuance of American slang. On one occasion Jose responded to a live chat message by typing “I'm your fairy queen.” I asked him “Do you know what that means.' “Yes”, he replied, “ It means I'm his dream come true.” I responded,” Its more likely to be taken to mean that you're a homosexual.”
It soon became clear that I was brought on board for my English skills and for my accent. American gamblers are put at ease by a midwestern accent. Interacting with a familiar voice made the customers less likely to ask the three tough questions , “Where are you located?” , “How are you regulated?”, and “Where is my money going?” American accents helped to create an image of legitimacy. In reality the casino was subject to very little regulation. When a government official did come calling, “You just had to know who to bribe.”
My first day off work in an exotic new country provided the perfect opportunity for exploring. The sky was blue, the wind gentle, and the temperature a flawless 72 degrees. I headed for the bus stop to downtown San Jose. I walked through the public square and decided to take Frost's advice. I tossed the tourist map and took the road less traveled by. I carried with me only a small amount of the local currency, my Oklahoma values, and Oklahoma Naivete. I was soon to learn your not in Oklahoma anymore. I made my way through crowded open air markets and bustling avenues. The businesses consisted of concrete buildings with metal doors that rolled upward opening to the street and pleasant breeze. I passed restaurants with only three chairs and only beans and rice for sale, limbless beggars laid on the corner with tin cups, and hors plying their trade in broad daylight. Often children would stare directly at me as if I were the first white man they had ever seen. The cars ignored traffic lights and accelerated when confronting pedestrians. The beggars would follow me for blocks proclaiming in broken English, “Money, hungry please!” The whores were not as persistent following me only a few yards beyond their designated corner. In a provocative voice one said, “Massaje o Sexo”. While with one hand she sought to arouse me the other sought to pick my pocket. This was a world absent the niceties of middle America. People were hungry and a white man meant money. They were not ashamed to beg, borrow, or steal and I was a prime target. I came from a world where honesty was valued above all else. A world where building relationships was essential. I was once told, “Provide good service today and you will have a customer for a lifetime and perhaps even a friend.” I soon learned that in a world where people are struggling these values are quickly tossed. The poor and the wealthy alike lived by a different moniker. “Get what you can now because there may be no tomorrow.” This was the rule of the day. It was religiously followed by the people on the streets and by the Indian executives at the internet casino.
In the weeks that followed I completed my casino education. I would master the art of play through and max cash out. The trick was to entice players with bonus money. One employee repeated a common sales pitch, “If you deposit one thousand we will match it 100%. This will give you two thousand to play with. Even if you have a bad day and lose a grand in the end you will break even.” This pitch was effective in getting players with cold feet to pull out their credit cards or to entice those already playing to deposit larger amounts.
The reality was that accepting bonus money came with burdensome restrictions hidden in fine print and disguised with industry jargon. For example, the bonus was noncashable. This meant that an amount equal to your bonus would be removed before your winnings would be paid. As a result the example given in the sales pitch would not result in you breaking even. You would have lost everything. These bonuses also typically came with a 25 times play through. This meant you would have to wager 25 times your bonus and deposit before you were eligible to remove even one dollar from your account. These requirements effectively stacked the deck in the houses favor.
My first few weeks with the casino I began to have second thoughts. I sat down one day and gave the issue consderation. While we weren't practicing the heartland values I learned as a child, we weren't that much different then typical capitalist America. I could relate to the cell phone agent who explained to a customer with a huge bill, ”Yes your contract is for $40 per month but the fine print states roaming is 69 cents per minute and long distance is 50 cents per minute and all minutes over 600 are charged at 35 cents per minute.” I could relate to the airline employee who had to tell an irate customer, “Yes the ad did say fares for $49 but the fine print stated only for travel on tuesday or thursday after 10pm and with a 21 day advance purchase. This was the cold hard real world. In the real world let the buyer beware because all prices end in 99 cents.
I was enjoying my new life in sunny Costa Rica so I overlooked a few things. However, in the months to follow layers of deception were slowly peeled away revealing an organization the mafia could envy. My suspicions grew as I began to witness the gymnastics practiced to get credit card charges approved. The casino had multiple credit card processors and would regularly switch between them throughout the day. Your casino bill could show up as “IG flowers”, “Silver Arrow Marketing”, or a variety of other rotating titles designed to fool the credit card companies. Many of the major credit card companies now deny internet gambling charges on the grounds that they are illegal in The United States. As they discovered one of our hidden identities we would just switch to a new one. We also limited charges to $500 per transaction to stay off the radar screen. This meant gamblers who wanted to deposit $2000 would have to wait for four $500 transactions to be approved. Many of our customers were unable to get their cards approved. We had a variety of tricks we resorted to in these cases. One was to encourage customers to send the money via Western Union. This allowed customers to place charges on their cards without revealing the ultimate recipient of the money. We would have them send the money to Managua, Nicaragua. After the money was listed for retrieval in Managua we could have it transfered to our bank accounts electronically. We routinely had the money sent to Carlos Vega, Jenny Baca, Maria Vasquez, Jose Villareal and about 30 other latin names. Customers were also urged to use internet funding companies such as Neteller or Citadel. These companies receive funds from customers and then transfer the money to internet companies. While there are certainly legitimate uses for such services, internet casinos rely heavily on this method to avoid detection from credit card companies that are making it difficult to place illegal gambling charges..
The puzzle began to take shape as I began to field numerous calls from customers who had not been paid for months. Roughly half of the calls I would take per day were from players who had won and not been paid. The casino manager would respond to my queries with a variety of excuses. Sometimes we would say accounting was off for a special Latin American holiday, or that the player needed to resend their documentation for the third time, or the check was in the mail. The manager did have the discretion to pay players but this was the exception rather then the rule. The casino manager was under heavy pressure from the Indian executives to limit payouts. One day I sat at my desk and heard screams coming from the corner office. “That's not Spanish is it?”, I told a coworker. ”No that's Hindi.” The Indian executives would go on a tirade full of verbal abuses whenever some target had been missed. This was our que that the casino manager was about to be called into the corner office and asked to explain payouts that were excessive. The fact that gamblers had won was not an acceptable excuse. The limited payouts that management allowed were often consumed by certain categories of gamblers who were given priority in payments. Those players exhibiting compulsive gambling behavior were paid rapidly. They almost always redeposited and lost. With our bonus restrictions few players won, those who did win were paid only when the manager deemed them likely to redeposit.
I must admit I was shocked at how easily many Americans fell for the scam. I would think that a casino that didn't pay would soon lose its customers. The casino group that I worked for grossed twenty three million dollars in 2005. I personally dealt with hundreds of repeat customers who had never received a cent. They fell into three basic categories. The gambling addict. This person gets high from betting. He wants to bet now and fools himself into thinking that he's not doing that poorly. I would have conversations with these individuals who would tell me of their last big win at our casino. I would have their record right in front of me. They had no big win. The second category I call the naive American. They would complain with gusto about how they were going to turn us in. They didn't seem to understand that no one had any authority to make us follow the rules. They would even place bets while waiting on their dispute to be resolved. I compare these players to the country boy who goes to the big city and is easily fooled by transvestites. He sees what he wants to see because he can't begin to consider that anyone would even attempt such a ridiculous sham. The third person is the guy who just accepts that he has had rotten luck. The fact of the matter is that even at legitimate casinos players lose far more then they win. Most players never won, so they never had to deal with not getting paid.
The most shocking revelation at the internet casino was the depth and pervasiveness of gambling addiction. Lets face it an internet casino is not Las Vegas. Internet casinos cannot compete with the glitz or entertainment choices of Vegas. However, like the alcoholic who hides his drinking, gambling addicts come to the internet for secrecy. Our volume of business was not highest on Friday or Saturday night like it is in Vegas. We got our peak deposits on Wednesday afternoon. This was a chance to bet when no one was watching. The alcoholic has his favorite bar but he couldn't get through the week without that little flask in his coat pocket. We were the little flask to the gambling addict. You could bet anytime and anyplace. You just needed access to a computer. The wife of an Indiana plumber who had lost over $20,000, much of it on her husbands company credit card, would call frantically demanding todays Western Union name before her husband came back in the office. She told one sales person, ” I must be a fool for betting at your casino. I havn't won a Nickel in over a year.” The sales person replied, ” Slots are streaky, never quit after a long losing streak because a big winning streak is just ahead.” She responded with a $2,000 deposit which she lost in under one hour. A retired professional exhibiting possible age related dementia would call early in the morning while his wife was asleep. He had lost thousands with us until his wife disputed the charges with his credit card company. He had sent us cash to cover the debt because he couldn't bare being cut off at the casino. A nurse in Illinois was $50,000 in the hole when the manager “hit the win button”. We allowed him to win so he would keep depositing with us. I took the phone call after he won over $5,000. The peculiar rush in his voice was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was more then happiness or excitement. It was as if he were on an adrenaline rush. I offered him a great bonus. “This is your chance to turn $5,000 into $50,000.” He took the deal and lost all of his winnings. You didn't have to be a particularly skilled salesman in this job. After gambling addicts are identified, you know they will go for just about anything if it keeps them gambling. The gambling is more important then the money. A story that one of the Indian casino executives loved to repeat at the water cooler involved a professional man who had lost so much that his home was foreclosed. He called us on the phone the year he had lost over $200,000 and asked if we could help with the costs of his mother's funeral. In a teary plea he admitted that he was flat busted. The Indian executive loved to use this story as an example of his humanitarianism. He covered the funeral costs.
The more I learned about the casino the more I became disenchanted. I was contemplating leaving the job and Costa Rica. Perhaps Robert read my body language because he invited me to go out with him on Friday night. His outings were famous in company gossip and frankly were said to be a big reason why many of the Americans had stayed on for years. “Were going out Friday” he said. “Where to.” “Don't worry about that we'll take care of you, your safe with us.” Prostitution is legal in Costa Rica. In a country where typical wages start at around $200 per month, you could get a lot for your dollar. On one occasion I had made my way to a favorite stop for tourists, The Hotel Del Rey. This was a multiple story pink building that was dominant in the downtown skyline. In a city that did not have street addresses it was used as a reference point. Directions for downtown were usually given in terms of meters north, south, east, or west of the Hotel Del Rey. On a day when my curiosity ruled I entered the bar at the Hotel Del Rey. Seats were scarce and the women stood in a long line just short of the bar. They all faced one direction with their butts lifted and posed to the gallery of men. They were for sale. The women outnumbered the men 3 to 1. The volume and variety were impressive. I spoke with women from Venezuela, Columbia, The Dominican Republic, Russia, and Nicaragua to name a few. They were black, brown, yellow, white. They were tall, short, big, and little in every physical feature imaginable. Robert took me out that night and showed me many of the local bars with “women of questionable morals” available. Prostitution was rampant in San Jose. This was a city of haves and have nots. Every president in the history of Costa Rica bore the name of a conquistador. These were the family names of a few select individuals who had been granted titles and lands by European royalty following the voyage of Columbus. To this date these families hold a tight grip on wealth and power. If your a young lady not in one of these families in San Jose you have choices that rarely go beyond poverty or prostitution. Robert picked up the tab that night. At the end of the night one of the new American's that Robert had asked to tag along said, ”I'm liking this job more and more every day.”
You don't spit into the wind, you don't tug on superman's cape, you don't pull the mask off the ole lone ranger, and you don't mess around with Jim. Robert had an alter ego. His name was Jim. Robert tilted the scales around three hundred pounds and had a mysterious edge to his personality. He could be charming at one moment and then alarmingly cruel seconds later. He was intelligent, cunning, and manipulative. He began his internet career years earlier in the porn industry. He was now the sales manager for the internet casino. One day I made my mind up about the internet casino when “Jim” began making his collection calls. “Jim” had a voice that could pass for Mike Tyson. He never bothered with small accounts. If you owed us $10,000 or more Jim would give you a call. He did his homework first. He would talk to the sales agent who worked the gambler. He would research our records and search the internet for information. He would find out where they lived, where they worked, where their children went to school. Then he would make the call as “Jim”. Jim had a toughguy routine that was very convincing. Imagine a Brooklyn accented voice calling you on the phone and with slow and deliberate pauses saying, “Yeah, this is Jim. I'm here at the park by Central Elementary. I work on commission you see, so I gets me monies.” “We can do this the hard way or the easy way.” “Either way I don't care. Either way I get's me monies.” “Who is Jenny”. “Oh, your daughter, well Jenny goes to school across the street from this park, and remember I always gets me monies.” A boom of laughter filled the office. This routine served as a favorite source of entertainment for the casino employees. However, the gag was all to serious. Jim's routine worked. It worked quickly and it worked every time. I had heard about it but this was the first time I was in the room when Robert made six of these phone calls. Two of the gamblers called and wired the money in within thirty minutes. One of the Indians from the corner office listened to the phone call and joined in the laughter. As he walked away he replied, “Robert, if these charge backs get out of hand we will have to really send someone out.” I left work an hour early that day. I called the airlines and booked a flight out of Costa Rica. I never picked up my last check.
This is a true story about my real experiences. I was subject to search every time I left the casino. I took no notes. The quotes represent real conversations but are not intended to be word for word. The casino group in question is located in Officentro La Sabana Sur in San Jose, Costa Rica. They occupy the seventh floor of the seventh building in this office complex that includes consulates for the Japanese and Canadian embassies. The group includes a sports book and several graphical faces that link to the same number generator software. Their casino names include Cirrus Casino, BetRoyal, Slots of Vegas, CookKat Casino, Prism and others.