Tricking Tourists: Scammers getting creative to rip off visitors
Crime is down in New York City and our tourism industry is richer for it. But the hustlers, sharpies and connivers who make a living exploiting the naiveté of outsiders have developed an ingenious array of strategies — many of which fly under the radar of law enforcement — to part tourists from their money.
The more than 50 million travelers who visit the Big Apple each year are gulled in myriad ways. There is the “tourist tax” imposed by greedy cabbies, pedicab pedalers and merchants on anyone deemed gullible enough to pay. Such a tax is also manifested in bogus “set up” charges for electronic goods or in mysterious, unjustified costs added on to credit card charges.
While the NYPD said there was no way to determine what percentage of crime victims are tourists, petit larceny (which includes pickpocketing, a crime for which tourists are often targeted) is up 3.8% over the last two years as of early July.
One of the scams is pretty much “pick-pocketing with permission.”
British tourists Phil and Patricia Crawley, 47 and 48, respectively, were charmed by a gentleman in midtown who joined their conversation to offer help with a headscratcher they were discussing: where to find an adaptor for an English plug.
After a friendly chat and a useless recommendation, the man bluntly requested a financial reward. Chagrined, they complied. “Those first few dollars were the best we spent: We didn’t fall for that again,” Patricia Crawley said. She then saw the man “crossing the road repeatedly and listening in on the conversations,” apparently in hopes his two cents would yield dollars.
“The predators got job training! They’ve developed new skills and came up with new ways to make money,” as a result of crackdowns on serious crime, said Larry K. Gaines, chair of the criminal justice department at California State University in San Bernardino.
Criminals who target tourist areas “have moved from predatory crimes to games and scams,” to elude arrest, Gaines said.
The “faux friendship” offered by strangers sometimes involves huggable costumed characters or celebrity impersonators. “Did you just see the Elvis pose with us?” asked Hollie Kiley, 42, a personal trainer from Hudson, Mass., who was abruptly photo bombed with her sister and their children in Times Square — and then hit up for cash.
“He didn't even ask if he could get in the picture!” Kiley said. Yet, after he told them he accepts ‘fives, tens and 20s,’ they collectively surrendered $8.
The NYC Law Department said in a statement “these characters are engaging in First Amendment activities and do not need a license or permit,” although aggressive panhandling is banned.
Karine Goldere’y and Aurelie Saint Pé, both 28 and from Martinique, thought the $71 they were charged by a cab driver to get from Kennedy Airport to Harlem seemed exorbitant, but “we gave him the money,” because they were exhausted and didn't know what the fare should be ($52 plus tolls and tip) or how to file a complaint, Golderéy said.
Gail Morse, director of programs and volunteers for Big Apple Greeter, bemoans all inhospitable deceptions, great and small.
“We’ve come so far. Our reputation is shining all over the world. When this happens, it’s terrible,” Morse said. Then she offered up a story about two Europeans charged $150 for a cab ride from JFK into Manhattan.
The TLC is aware of airport fare pricing problems, which is why every airport cab customer is given a pamphlet detailing fare prices when they get to the head of an airport cab line, said a TLC spokesman. Fare information is also posted in the back of cabs to inform non-New Yorkers of cab rules and appropriate costs, said Seth C. Melnick, a senior policy analyst for the TLC. Any passengers who believe they have been exploited are encouraged to call 311 an make a complaint, Melnick added.
Tourists make excellent victims, experts say, because they are inherently vulnerable and often don’t complain about victimization: They are often fatigued from long voyages, are in a carefree “vacation” mode and may be unfamiliar with U.S. currency in addition to the English language. Many, too, are uncertain of local practices and have no idea that a “going out of business” sale has been going on for a decade. They may even be fearful of offending their exploiters.
Accurate statistics about tourist exploitation are elusive. Of the 1,503 taxi complaints the Taxi and Limousine Commission received in June this year, only 237 were lodged by people outside the state of New York.
Only 6 percent, or 250, of the complaints the Department of Consumer Affairs received last year came from visitors, with about a quarter of those complaints concerning electronics stores. Parking garages, pedicabs, sightseeing buses and car dealerships were also frequent sources of frustration, said DCA spokeswoman Abigail Lootens.
But crime experts say tourist crimes and exploitation are notoriously underreported: “They don’t know how to file complaints and, when they do, the follow-up is often dubious,” said Robert D. McCrie, professor security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Tips on how tourists can avoid being gouged
What can your visiting friends and relatives do to avoid getting rooked in NYC? Visitors should report all violations by calling 311; go to nyc.gov/consumers to determine if a business is licensed; and try not to look like tourists! Here are some other tips:
-- Don’t shop at stores with a “no refunds” policy and never surrender a credit card before confirming the amount to be charged. After noticing that almost $1,000 worth of extra “international setup” charges had been added to the cost of four iPhones, Dean Irvine, 29, from Perth, Australia, refused to sign his Visa transaction receipt. But his protest was too late: The owner of the midtown electronics store had already charged his card $4,263, and simply pointed to a “no refunds” sign. With the help of the NYPD and the Department of Consumer Affairs, Irvine obtained a refund. He now pledges only to patronize well-known companies with customer-friendly policies.
-- All prices must be posted on or near items that are for sale, including services. Avoid places that don’t post prices. Glenn Kowallis, 35, a contractor from Washington D.C., never imagined the ice cream cones he ordered for his four kids would wind up costing $5 apiece. “We were definitely gouged,” he said.
-- Ask for and keep all receipts. You will need a receipt if you eventually decide to file a complaint. In NYC, you are entitled to a receipt for any purchase more than $20, but you can also request receipts for purchases in lower amounts.
-- Don’t hesitate to walk away if asked for money that is unearned or undeserved, or if terms of a purchase inexplicably shift. Magdalena Salom, 49, from Majorca, was in the process of purchasing pajama pants under a $14.99 sign on a stand in Little Italy, when the merchant announced they were actually $20. “He said it was a mistake on the label!” recounted her friend, DiAnna Maggi, 68, a tourist from Ozark, Mo.