Look Out for These Eleven New York City Scams
Tourists are easy (and the only?) targets for MTA card scammers.
All illustrations by Curtis Tinsley
December is the final busy month before New York sees its tourism dip in January and February, and with all those out-of-towners comes the opportunity for easy money to be made at subway stations, in Times Square, and even at one of the city's museums. So, with a month left before Christmas, we present this 2014 guide to New York scams, old and new. These first-hand accounts show you're always capable of having the wool pulled over your eyes, whether you're a tourist or a lifelong New Yorker. Happy holidays!
The Donation Bin Scam It's a common question: "I'm moving and want to donate some clothes. Does anyone know where I can do that?" And it often yields a reasonable-sounding answer: "There's one of those bins on the corner of [insert intersection]. You can try there!" Only here's the thing: Don't do that. In all probability, one of "those bins" is owned by some kind of shady, for-profit company that is selling those "donations" in bulk for a tidy profit. The New York Times and WNYC have recently officially unveiled these operations as scams. But the smartest among us were always asking: "Why was that bin on my block yesterday and on the next block today? Why is there no official name of the charity to which these clothes are being donated? Why would we dump hundreds of dollars' worth of clothes into a pink bin with an ambiguous 800 number stenciled on the side? If I call the number, will anyone answer? Fuck it, what's the number for Goodwill?"
The Baby-Trading Scam Baby trading is like day trading, except instead of speculating with financial instruments, these sharks use flesh-and-blood toddlers. You think we're joking? We're not. New York scammers are cold-blooded. In November, a TV news team tailed a cabal of at least nine women who panhandle, tots in tow, in shifts on the streets of midtown Manhattan. When one woman takes a break, she hands her baby over to another, who will continue to collect money from sympathetic passersby. "This is a scam, a business," George McDonald, founder of the nonprofit The Doe Fund, which employs homeless individuals in midtown, told NBC New York.
The Selling-a-Free-Newspaper Scam You might be a Paul from Pittsburgh or Bill from Baltimore, but you're definitely a mark. That team-loyal Starter jacket don't help; nor does the circumstance of your languishing in the Amtrak staging area at Penn Station -- that barrel's full of out-of-town fish. So when the
hobo somewhat disheveled-looking fellow comes by hawking newspapers at the low, low price of only a quarter per copy, be it for the lowly (amNewYork, Metro) or the venerable (uh, Village Voice, duh), resist the urge to marvel, "Wow, a city so profoundly well-read and chockablock with print pubs as to engender Mad Men throwback pricing!" You're about to get got, sucker; that shit is gratis, the stack filched right out of a dispenser. On the bright side, at least the entrepreneurial spirit lives on in Obama's America...
The Candy-Selling Scam Say you're craving M&Ms while you're on the subway. An earnest young man approaches you wondering if you'd like to buy some to help out his basketball team...maybe at that moment it won't bother you that he's most likely giving a cut of his earnings to a neighborhood wholesaler who has no affiliation whatsoever with a youth basketball team. But if you're the kind of person who likes to know where your money is going, it's probably best that you pass on the tempting offer of an in-transit sugar high and wait until you pass a store. Because in all probability, your money just bought more candy that some other unsuspecting mark will buy at a later date. The scam is as old as the subway system: Get a line on some cheap candy (or bottled water) -- sometimes purchased with food stamps -- give it to a kid to sell on the trains, get a percentage of the take. Watch the money roll in. Who says you have to buy candy to support youth basketball, anyway?
The New Year's Eve "Open Bar" Scam It happens every year. We get an excited call from a friend, usually new to the city, who just stumbled upon the greatest New Year's Eve open-bar "deal," only $100 a ticket or somewhere in that ballpark. No. Just no. Because like St. Patrick's Day and Cinco de Mayo, on NYE NYC ceases to be a city and temporarily functions as a Penn State satellite campus. They all flock here: Jersey girls with Coach purses, Connecticut girls with North Face jackets, and bros, bros, bros galore. And here's something we can guarantee you from long-ago, booze-soaked behind-the-ears experience: They will all be attending that prix fixe dinner or open bar. Whether or not this is actually a scam is up for debate -- you are, technically, privy to a six-hour open bar, or whatever they're offering, but most places oversell and pack their stiletto'd guests in like cattle, making it damn near impossible to see, let alone order from, said bar, and when you do, we're betting it's limited to bottom-shelf, watered-down vodka-crans anyway, totally negating the supposedly glamorous experience for which you're paying top dollar. Restaurants get in on the chump-baiting, too; take TGI Fridays, which suddenly costs $149 to get into, or Ruby Tuesday, with its unfathomable $399 cover. In fact, it's best to just avoid everything here. Go to a house party or just stay home and have a quiet night like a real New Yorker.
The MetroCard Scam New Yorkers know not to buy a MetroCard from anyone who isn't an MTA employee or machine. In fact, it's illegal to sell them if you don't work for the Transit Authority. But tourists -- who are easy enough to spot -- are frequently propositioned with cards of little or no value by scammers who use intimidation to exploit the wide-eyed, sheepish newbies and visitors into buying "discounted" cards for more than they're worth. Why? Because it works! Take a guy like John Jones, for instance. The Bronx man claims he's made as much as $20,000 in a year selling cards he found on the street and in stations, all of which have some leftover value on them. The MTA has acknowledged that lost or unused MetroCards can account for as much as $52 million in revenue a year. And they enacted a $1 replacement fee for cards in 2011, and now earn $20 million a year from that. They're getting your money regardless. So maybe it's the MTA we should be mad at for running a system that makes the scam so easy. Guys like John Jones are just driving a truck -- or, more accurately, a train -- through a loophole of the MTA's making.
The Melon Drop Scam This may be more myth than fact-based, and it's a bigger problem in Europe than in NYC, but the scam works like this: Armed with the knowledge that some melons can cost as much as $60 apiece in countries like Japan, the scammer, according to scamplots.com, "accidentally-on-purpose" "bumps" into a group of Japanese sightseers and then demands they fork over $60 or something close for the "expensive" fruit. They take up a collection, and the scammer makes a tidy profit. Of course, this scam is now being done with an eye on a broader audience so that its effectiveness isn't limited only to Japanese tourists, and so, basically, if anyone bumps into you, drops something of worth, and claims you broke it, just look at them, smile, and say, "I know this one, guy! Go try it on someone else, or we can get a police officer to help us sort through this dispute." --Brian McManus
The "Money First, Keys Later" Scam Steer clear of New York Craigslist apartment ads that, in a nutshell, say money first and keys later. Are you a slightly naive newcomer to the city of dreams? Have you heard friends tell you how lucky they were to get apartments at miraculous deals off Craigslist? Despite your misgivings, you give the ad site a go, reaching out to owners of all the apartments and/or rooms you fancy. Some responses are outright fishy. Others are more intricate in their guile, like the elderly couple retiring in London and asking for $700 a month for a furnished one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, eloquently stressing how long they've lived in it and the qualities of the tenant they're looking for. But ultimately the con is the same: out-of-town apartment owners -- at a new job in Indiana or retiring overseas -- who want you to take care of the apartment while they are away; unfortunately, they left with the keys to the apartment because they couldn't find a buyer in time. How will you view the apartment? You can "stop by the building to have a look at its surrounding." S/he or they will not let you access the apartment until you've signed a lease agreement and paid the first month's rent. This is sure to set off alarm bells in some heads, so for the skeptics, the confolk add twists. They are not asking for rent or a deposit, just the insured cost of shipping the keys. The FTC says to be wary of rental agents or apartment owners who say they are out of the country and tell you to wire money or sign an agreement before you've met. As a rule of thumb to apartment hunting in NYC, if the deal sounds too good to be true, it most likely is.
The "That Guy Is Not From ConEd" Scam Con Edison is no stranger to being made the scapegoat of the numerous scams enacted by New York's craftiest assholes. One of the most dastardly involves a person coming to your door either dressed as a technician or just dressed well. Pretending to be a representative from Con Edison, they give you the pitch: a rebate for a free month of electricity. All that's required from you is your account number. Once they've acquired that number, they'll try to obtain other personal information by posing as you in a phone call to the electric company. The main rule here is to never give anyone sensitive information about yourself unless you've confirmed they're from a reputable source. If you've opened the door for this would-be scammer, promptly shut it on them. But really, what are you doing opening the door for unannounced strangers in the first place?
The Three-Card Monte Scam (Really!) You might have thought that the quintessential New York scam went out with bell-bottoms and the nudie clubs in Times Square. But there's some evidence that three-card monte, the scammiest scam that ever scammed, is back in the Big Apple.
A Voice reporter witnessed, with his own eyes, 3CM both on the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, and on the subway in the last few months. And possibly more astonishing is that people were actually playing. How can anyone -- seriously, anyone -- not know this one by now?
For the uninitiated:
The game might involve a combination of sleight of hand, a good-old fashioned plant, and/or, occasionally, straight-up strong-armed robbery. You'll be walking by, and be invited to join as a dealer flashes three cards -- one red, two black. Your only task is to guess where the red card is. (Variations might involve three small cups and a ball, three walnut shells and a bean, and on and on.)
The skilled dealers will simply palm the ball while you're not looking, or use trick cards that unfold to be either red or black, depending on what's needed.
One dealer in Brooklyn has an extra enticement. He'll hand you a stack of bills -- and we're talking a stack, hundreds and hundreds of dollars -- telling you that all you need is a $20, and you'll win that whole lump of dough. The idea is that holding that money in your hands just feels so good. And it does. Now you're interested.
But it all sounds too good to be true, right? Well, that's where the plant comes in. You look at the nice young lady hanging off to the side, who tells you about all the money she's already won. Maybe she'll play a hand right there, in front of your eyes, and you'll see the dealer pay out a stack of cheddar. Obviously this isn't a scam, you think (because you're not too bright). Look at her, she won!
This Reddit user describes one of the more sinister variations: You're walking by, and the dealer offers you a chance to win $20 without even putting any money up. What a generous soul! But take that bet, win, and try to walk away? You're likely to hear, "aww man, you have to give me a chance to win my money back!" Keep walking away? Well, now things might get serious. And remember, these dealers are never, ever working alone. Here is a little demo of the game in action. And here is the secret of how it's done.
The Met's "Suggested Donation" Scam Most New Yorkers know that the Met's recommended donation for entrance is just that -- a recommended donation. But you'll be forgiven if you've never noticed the fine print and assumed, wrongly, that it's an entrance fee. (That fine print on the website says, by the way, "To help cover the costs of exhibitions, we ask that you please pay the full recommended amount," which sounds less like a suggested donation plea than it probably should.) Welcome to one of the greatest institutionalized scams in the city. The Met pays no rent, receives grant money from the city, and enjoys tax-exempt status on the grounds that it is providing a public good. It also has an endowment that climbs into the billions of dollars, and its director makes more than $1 million. The Met has been charging this suggested donation since the 1970s (free admission had been required for decades prior), and a State Supreme Court judge ruled in the museum's favor last year, validating the Met's right to charge everyone something -- even if it's only a penny. Now, that wouldn't be so bad if the museum actually nonjudgmentally let visitors pay what they wished, but the staff lays on a guilt trip if it doesn't approve of your amount; we've witnessed someone say she wanted to pay a penny, and she was met with a less-than-friendly reminder that contributions help fund the exhibitions. We find that a little hard to believe. Fact remains -- if you're just looking to wander the museum's halls for a few minutes while killing time on the Upper East Side, don't be swindled out of your $25 -- you are allowed to pay much, much less.
Know of a scam that should be on here? Are you a scammer who wants to defend yourself? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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