Jeremiah’s Guide to Scams

I’ve lived in New York City for over ten years and I’ve come across all sorts of scams.  If you’re new to the city or planning on visiting soon (or have any scams to share), I thought I’d help you out by listing all the schemes I’ve encountered in the Big Apple.

When dealing with suspected scam artists, I suggest: be polite, firm, and remove yourself quickly.  The scammer figures if they can have your attention, your money is soon to follow.  I learned this selling luggage in the 90s.

Above all, if a gun is ever involved, hand over the money.  Sadly, since I’ve lived in New York City I can recall two news stories where someone at gunpoint challenged a thief, probably trying to break the tension by saying “What are you going to do, shoot me?”  In both of these situations the victim was shot.

The Broken Bottle of Champagne
Here’s how this one works:  Someone stumbling down the street bumps into your arm, breaks a bottle of champagne (wine, their glasses, etc.) blames you and demands payment.  I fell for this gem late one night when I was 20 and was out $5 for a broken bottle of pink champagne.

Don’t even wait for the scammer to whine about what you just broke, just keep walking.  It might seem rude, but the scammers prey on your guilt and hesitation.  I’m pretty sure I knocked some innocent’s lunch on the ground while walking down Broadway once but just kept walking because I’m a jaded New Yorker and calculated it had a 50% chance of being a scam.  Note: Sometimes this scam has an accomplice involved that may be a few steps ahead of you on the street.  Again, if you get in any situation that you can’t escape just give the thief the money.

Three Card Monty
I saw this oldie on the Subway not too long ago.  Three Card Monty is a betting game where someone has three cards and if the player correctly guesses where a specific card is after the three cards have been shuffled around,  the player wins a nice pile of cash.  If you see a game, you’ll probably see a crowd around it.  You’ll also probably see someone win the game (a plant).  And you’ll definitely see someone lose money.  This sleight of hand trick is usually carried out by a whole team of scammers to convince you that there’s a real element of chance involved.  Don’t be fooled.

Charities Collecting Money on The Subway or My Basketball Team is Having a Raffle or I’m Selling Candy for My Class Trip
I’ve had kids come up to me on the subway, at Central Park, and in fast food restaurants.  They sell candy and claim its for school or a basketball team.  It might be legit, but doesn’t feel right.  There’s also older kids selling candy on the subway who don’t claim to be selling it for any charity.  Fair enough, everyone enjoys a snack on the train.  The candy is usually something like $2 for a candybar.  Not the steepest scam, if it is a scam, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

Also keep in mind, that it’s illegal to ask for money on the train.  I’m sure some of the folks begging on the subway really need the money and I’ve seen some really great musical talent that warrants donations.  However, scammers will sometimes ask for money on a train by claiming they are with a charity to give food to the homeless.  Because of the panhandling laws I would be highly suspicious of any “legitimate” charity asking for money on the subway.

Can I Ask You A Question?
I know I should give folks the benefit of the doubt but whenever I’ve been approached by someone on the street who’s first line is “Can I ask you a question?”  I usually get asked for money after listening to some (lengthy) sad story.  Nowadays, when someone on the street says “Can I ask you a question?” I automatically (rudely) reply “I don’t have any money.”  Then the person yells at me “I wasn’t going to ask you for money!”  I admit this is a nasty habit that I don’t encourage.  But I’ve never been asked “Can I ask you a question?” and not been asked for money.

One time I was waiting in a restaurant for a takeout order and a gentleman came in and asked me if he could ask me a question.  I said I didn’t have any money.  He said he’d take anything, a quarter, etc.  I said I didn’t have anything.  He then yelled at me for assuming he was going to ask me for money.

Variations on “Can I Ask You A Question?” can be “do you have the time?” or a plea for directions which can lead to…

The Long, Sad, and Very Detailed Story
The Long, Sad, and Very Detailed Story sometimes will be prefaced with the above mentioned “Can I ask you a question?”  But sometimes, you just get the story after someone dramatically flags you down on the street or ambushes you as you’re enjoying your lunch in the park.  The story varies, and who knows, it might be true, I’ve had bad days that can’t be expressed in a couple sentences.

Once the scammer stops you, they might try to disarm you with “I’m not asking for money.”  But pretty soon he or she are going to launch into a story with all sorts of plot points, unnecessary details, displays of helplessness that after a while you might want to give the scammer some cash just to leave you alone.

I was once enjoying my lunch in Riverside Park where some dude started asking me for directions somewhere to somewhere I wasn’t familiar.  He then sat down next to me and started saying all sorts of stuff about how he had to leave Miami because his sister was raped, his brother in Newark broke his arm, his mother in Cleveland didn’t like him anymore, and all sorts of other things.  He was sitting down next to me in the park, there weren’t that many people around, and I started sensing some trouble may be brewing, so I gave him five bucks.  But he didn’t leave, he kept talking about how different things were in Florida until I gave the rest of what I had, which was $4.  Then he left.

If someone joins you on a bench.  I say just politely leave.  If they follow you, go to a public place and if you think the person won’t stop following you, call the police.  If you ever think you’re being followed do not head home.  That happened to a woman in my neighborhood and the thief followed her home and forced his way into the apartment.  Her boyfriend was shot by the thief and luckily survived.

I remember there was a woman near my apartment who would freak out on the corner and try to flag down passersby.  She would engage you in some story about just being released from the hospital and show you her hospital tags.  She was asking for money to get in touch with her sister or something.  I heard a coworker offered to let her use her cell and the woman said she couldn’t touch cell phone buttons.  She dodged every offer for help that wasn’t cash.  A couple days later she tried the same story on me.  And I saw her a couple weeks later on the same street corner, doing the same performance.

Another time a young woman asked me for money in exchange for some random sad story.  I had a couple bucks and thought it was always good to give the benefit of the doubt. As I reached in and pulled out a dollar or two, a police car rolled by.  The woman urged me to hide the money, the police could pick us both up for prostitution charges and to just pretend we were talking.  After the cop car vanished I gave her a couple bucks even though the whole prostitution thing didn’t mesh with her story.

I think there’s no sin or stupidity in giving someone in need a hand.  Unfortunately, I believe some folks take advantage of Good Samaritans.

I Can Prove I’m Honest, I Have Papers
Sometimes during a long sad story, someone who has approached you on the street may wave some kind of documents to prove they are sincere in asking for money.  I tend to think of these as props in a little play the person performs for you.

One time it was a young guy in the subway who said he’d just been released from Ryker’s and needed bus fare.*  He had some papers to show he was discharged.  I hear people are released from Ryker’s the city gives them a Metrocard, so I’m not sure why someone would need bus fare.

One time it was a mother with a child who said she needed money to get her child food for the day and wanted to show me she was getting welfare but the checks hadn’t started yet.  I gave them ten dollars because the child did look hungry.

One night, around 10pm by Columbus Circle, a guy stopped me and started telling me he was a crane operator or something and hurt his back.  He said he needed money because he was out of work.  He tried to show me some kind of paperwork, a building ID or something, explaining his situation.  I didn’t believe him because who wanders around Columbus Circle at 10pm looking for disability insurance benefits?

As a performer, I’ve learned if you want to tell a good story, you need good details, and everytime someone tries to prove, with props, that they are  in an unfortunate situation, my suspicions arise.

Splitting The Tab at a Restaurant
When I first moved to the city I loathed birthday parties at restaurants and that’s what everyone did because no one lives in a space that’s centrally located that can host more than three and a half people.  I’d go to these things broke, order a salad, while everyone else ordered three course meals, 20 drinks, and dessert.  I always went to these things thinking I would just pay what I owe and maybe a couple bucks extra.  No, the person who ordered the most always loudly proclaimed that we’re all splitting the bill.  At first you put in what you think you owe but the check is always short $100, people start fighting, and you put in four times what you expected just to stop the yelling.

Not only that but some young affluent New Yorkers will insist on putting meals on their parents’ credit card then collect cash from everyone.  Lowest of the low.

There’s no real solution to this dinner party money trap, unless you just prove to people what you owe which is no fun at the end of a party.

This situation also applies to Karoake Bar room rentals.  Beware!

New York City Rents
If I’m doing a survey of scams in New York City, I can’t overlook the biggest one of them all: New York City Real Estate.  It’s not unusual for folks to spend half to three quarters of their income to live in Manhattan.  Is it worth it?  Maybe for six months, but you can get into a trap where you have a boring office job that makes you too tired to do anything else except go home to your 10′ x 12′ basement studio on Central Park West and stare at the dirty dishes stacked up on top of your 1970s era stove because you can’t afford a place with a counter.

Most Manhattan apartments are ridiculously small, have substandard appliances, unreliable plumbing, no thermostat, and history of some kind of vermin (mice, roaches, bedbugs, fleas, ants, and/or waterbugs).  If I had to vote on which vermin was the least bothersome, I’d have to pick mice.

What are the remedies for this scam?

Finding a Cheap Place
If you want to live on Manhattan, check areas north of Harlem.   Or just live in a borough, Jersey, or Long Island.  Will the commute be a pain? Yes.  Are you closer to things when you live in Manhattan? Yes.  I highly recommend moving around the city to find a spot that works for you.

Challenging Your Rent
Is it possible that you live in a rent-stabilized apartment and your landlord is charging more than legally possible?  Yep.  There’s all sorts of rules on what a landlord can charge for rent in New York City.  If you have a lease and have been a resident for a little while you may be able to request a history of your apartment’s rent to see if your rent is within its legal limits.  I found this link that may help you: http://www.housingnyc.com/html/resources/attygenguide.html

Preferential Rent
There’s this nasty trick of “Preferential Rent” in New York City.  For rent stabilized apartments, there’s a legal rent for your apartment specified on your lease and your landlord can charge you less and call it “preferential rent.”  In the old days the landlord could only raise your rent based on what you actually paid.  So say the legal rent to you basement studio was $1150.  Your landlord would realize the apartment was a hole and offer you $800 rent as “preferrential rent.”  When your lease would come up for renewal your landlord could only charge the legal rent increase based on the $800 a month you paid.  Well, recently the stupid law changed.  The landlord can now raise your rent based on the legal  rent.  So if you pay $800 one year, on the next lease the landlord can jack it up to the legal rent, $1150 plus the stupid percentage they’re allowed to increase the legal rent.

Key Fees
When I signed the lease for my old apartment I was charged a “key fee” of $500.  $500 for the damn keys.  I rationalized the steep fee by thinking I was getting a decent rent and not paying a broker’s fee  that most people pay to find a decent place in NYC (which is usually one month’s rent–which I think is a scam in itself).  But Key Fees are illegal and a scam, but if you find a place with a decent rent without a broker, it’s not likely your mentioning the law will help you get the apartment.

Pick Pockets
Pick Pockets aren’t just in the movies.  I saw a guy on the subway get pick pocketed in front of a crowded train.  He had an expensive camera stolen. Here’s how it went down:  The train was crowded.  The guy with the expensive camera was by the door.  The doors were closing.  Three guys rushed in.  They were loud, jittery, and seemed confused.  The way the three thieves were positioned the doors kept trying to close but couldn’t.  It was confusing to everyone.  Eventually they just left.  The doors closed, the train departed the station, and the guy standing next to the door realized his camera was gone.

Walking Sidewalk Merchandise
A couple times, once in the middle of the day, once at around 2am, I have been approached by “wandering salesmen.”  One guy offered to sell me a crappy suitcase, the other kept insisting that he had a set of four laundromat quality irons that he’d let me have for $80.

Walking CD Street Sales
I see folks get caught in this trap whenever I walk around Times Square.  Here’s the scam: Some guys are on the street promoting and selling their album.  They hold out the CD as if they’re giving it away for free, the tourist grabs it, the scammer then sticks to the person like glue telling them all about the album.  The scammer then asks the tourist’s name, then autographs the CD to the person, and announces the album’s price.  Whoops!  The tourist feels obligated to purchase the album now, it has his or her name on it.

Selling Stereo Speakers
When I lived in Queens, I was walking down Steinway and some kids in a van said they had some speakers to sell.  They had just made some sort of delivery and had some extra speakers they needed to unload for a deal.  As it turns out this is a classic scam: http://www.crimes-of-persuasion.com/Crimes/InPerson/speaker_scams.htm

Subway Fare Evasion Traps
I had a temp job once and worked with a guy who said he was ticketed for evading a subway fare.  He said the turnstiles kind of looked blocked and the service gate was open.  When he walked through, a police officer came out of hiding and gave my friend a ticket.  Typically officers waiting for subway fare violations will be hiding, but to make it look like the turnstiles are out of order so the only way home is through an open service gate–that’s a scam.

Selling MTA Fares
Don’t be surprised if your Metrocard takes a couple swipes to let you through a turnstile.  Once it was taking me a couple swipes when someone came up and swiped me through.  What a nice man, I thought.  I went through and then he asked me for the two dollars I owed him.  Now, I was already on the other side of the turnstile and he wasn’t.  But I gave him the two bucks anyway.  Watch out, selling fares is illegal and if a cop saw what went down both of us could have gotten ticketed.

Help Getting a Cab
The first time I visited New York City when I was 6, my parents and I had just departed Penn Station when some man offered to help us find a cab.  He got us right as we exited and asked for money for his “service.”  If you have a suitcase and family, all you need is an arm to hail down a cab.  Especially by Penn Station.  This scam is a pretty good way to take advantage of someone visiting New York City who is overwhelmed by the bustling streets.

The best way to  hail a cab, from my experience, is to stand in the middle of the block ahead of the traffic. Stand next to the curb, one the street and stick your arm out.  Don’t bother yelling “Taxi!”  They can’t hear you.

Are You Lost?
I was looking for someplace around Hell’s Kitchen once and a nice man offered to help.  He helped me find the building for which I was looking then asked for payment.  I told him that I had no money.  He recommended a couple local ATMs.  I walked away from him.

*BUS FARE: I’ve gotten a lot of random requests for bus fare.  Sometimes its to get home or get to a job.  I’m always suspicious of people asking for bus fare, feeling the person needs the money for something they’re embarrassed to admit.

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