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Cure for Vegas Addiction may require casino hosts identifying it

Accountant Roberto Heckscher spent his workweek in an office above a San Francisco flower shop. He lived conservatively, drove an inexpensive car and gained the trust of clients who invested their life savings with him.

Ausaf Umar Siddiqui, on the other hand, was a brash vice president at Fry’s Electronics Inc. who talked like he owned the company. In reality, the San Jose resident earned just $225,000 a year.

Both men had something in common: a terminal case of Vegas Addiction.

Never heard of the Vegas Addiction?

It comes on slowly, soaks into your system like top shelf, slips into your soul like good drugs or a bad woman, and fevers your brain hotter than going all in with second-best cards.

It’s more than a chemical dependency to gambling, alcohol, drugs and floozies. It’s an inability to control one’s neon alter ego — that’s the surest sign of Vegas Addiction.

Feeding the addiction takes an endless supply of money. Millions of tourists and gamblers come to Las Vegas and either maintain their boundaries or at least have the sense to go home when they’re broke.

Those truly addicted to the adrenaline rush of the action lost their good sense and moral compass along with their first million. One symptom of Vegas Addiction is a clandestine reliance on OPM (Other People’s Money.) That is to say, thievery.

For Heckscher, the millions he needed to support his fantasy came from bilking hundreds of working-class people in what law enforcement authorities are calling one of the longest-running Ponzi schemes in American history. He was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison for skinning more than $50 million from 290 investors over three decades.

“For nearly three decades, Roberto Heckscher made his livelihood by stealing the hopes and dreams of the people he knew,” U.S. Attorney Joseph P. Russoniello said last month.

Meanwhile, authorities allege Siddiqui spent years grooming lucrative kickbacks as a Fry’s insider, then used the money to play the role of super-rich high roller at Strip casinos. He gambled away $167 million over a decade, mostly at Las Vegas casinos, and once lost
$8 million in less than 24 hours.

Both men are paying for their Vegas Addiction, but their stories aren’t unique.

In an age when everyone’s life is a Google click away, do casino hosts and executives — whose senses are so attuned to their players’ every whim and credit line — have a responsibility to inform agencies such as the Gaming Control Board, FBI and IRS when their players’ bankrolls don’t come close to matching their lifestyles and credit reports?

For decades casino bosses have reacted to such questions with a shrug that says, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” “Customers have a right to privacy,” and, “What are you, a troublemaker?”

But down at Las Vegas IRS headquarters, Special Agent in Charge Paul Camacho politely clears up any confusion.

“I do not believe our major resorts willingly harbor mini Bernie Madoffs for the sake of enjoying their gaming losses,” Camacho said. “That said, we have been reaching out to casinos to broaden their views of what is suspicious behavior. All casinos are required by federal law to report suspicious behavior through Suspicious Activity Reports.

Although casinos have done a “good job” combating money laundering, Camacho said, “We want the industry to also focus on red flags that might indicate someone is engaged in wholesale white-collar crime such as investment fraud, embezzlement, Ponzi schemes or engaged in telemarketing fraud.

“Individuals engaged in these crimes traditionally have come to Vegas not to launder their illegal proceeds, but to enjoy their illegal proceeds. Casino hosts possess a wealth of information on larger customers.”

Separating the very good customers from the Vegas addicts can be tougher than distinguishing identical twins. But shirking that responsibility makes us morally complicit in illegal activity. With competition for customers keener than ever, I wonder whether such behavior will even be encouraged.

When it comes to Vegas Addiction, the conscience is the first thing to go.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

 

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