“Shake my hand! I’m not a drug dealer!” a tall, well-built man said to my friend Myron as we strolled down Times Square in New York City one spring afternoon. He extended one hand towards Myron, while the other hand clutched a stack of CDs. Myron shook his head to say no, and we walked away from a potential panhandling.
“Just ignore them,” Myron advised. “Don’t shake their hands; don’t make eye contact.” He’s been living in New Jersey for several years now and knows his way around Manhattan. We watched another group of CD bullies corner a tourist, asking for his name and how his New York trip has been so far, pretending to be completely interested in making him feel welcome in the Big Apple, but we know this modus operandi too well.
After some small talk, the CD bully will give you a speech about how he’s an up-and-coming rapper and would like to share his music for free by handing out CD samplers. He’ll even autograph it for you, just in case he becomes a recording star someday. The gullible tourist, seeing no harm in getting a free CD, takes it. Then the CD bully starts asking for a tip, $10-20 to be exact. When the tourist tries to resist, walk away, or haggle, the CD bully gets aggressive, calls his other friends to surround you and harass you until you give in. In worst cases, you end up with CDs from each bully after giving them a “tip” of $10 each.
“My friend Ramon was harassed and had to shell out $12 for a CD the last time he was here,” I told Myron.
Like a free-for-all amusement park, Times Square is filled with attractions for tourists—restaurants with panoramic views, dozens of souvenir shops, double-deck bus rides that take you around Manhattan, discount rates for Broadway shows, and NYPD cops who are more than happy to take a photo with you.
But there’s more than your fair share of scams, initially disguised as a freebie or bargain attraction. Once you are lured in, you can kiss your cash goodbye. Here are five to look out for, whether you’re stepping into Times Square for the first time or are a local just passing through.
1. CD Bullies
Modus operandi: As mentioned above, a guy dressed in hip-hop clothes will pretend to be a super friendly local. He’ll shake your hand and ask for your name, where you’re from, and how long you’ll be in New York. He’ll introduce himself as an up-and-coming rapper/musician who wants to spread his music by handing out CDs. You’ll think it’s free, but as soon as you take the CD and try to walk away, he’ll get aggressive and demand for a tip. When you reject, argue, or haggle, he’ll call his equally aggressive friends. They’ll encircle you and harass you until you’re scared and give in.
How to avoid getting scammed: Be smart and aware of your surroundings. You can spot them blocks away lurking around wide-eyed and naïve tourists. Avoid eye contact. Act like you’re a local and walk away even when they try to shake your hand. When all else fails, scam-detector.com suggests you leave the CD on their feet and walk away, preferably towards a cop.
Kate’s tidbit: I saw them every day during my stay in Times Square early this year, but I’m glad I wasn’t victimized. I dressed and acted like I was a New York local, even if deep inside I was an excited little tourist.
Modus operandi: Wearing knockoff mascot costumes such as Mickey Mouse, Cookie Monster, and Spider-Man, they’ll walk up to you, especially if you have children, and then signal to have your photo taken with them—without explaining that there’s a cost. When you walk away and refuse to give a tip, they’ll pester you, harass you, and even follow you around until you cough up the cash. According to the New York Times, there are reports of mascots grabbing children until the parents give them money. What’s worse, if five other mascots decide to photobomb your picture with Minnie Mouse, you’ll have to tip each one of them or incur their collective wrath.
How to avoid getting scammed: Ignore them at all costs. If you have children with you, tell them those aren’t the real mascots of the cartoon shows and just take them to kid-friendly places like Toys “R” Us and the M&Ms Store where there are legit mascots that won’t harass you. If you really want to take a photo with them, make sure you clarify how much it costs before clicking your camera.
Kate’s tidbit: I saw them at almost every corner of Times Square this May, and boy were they annoying! Their dusty, knockoff costumes were such a turn-off. During lunch breaks at Time Square, I would watch them harass unknowing tourists and their kids. The New York Times recently interviewed the immigrants behind the mascots, who shared that they prefer this freelance job to a 9-5 blue collar job.
3. Fake Charities
Modus operandi: They hang out at the streets with sign-up sheets, DIY posters, and flyers. One or two people will approach you, pretending to be part of a fictitious charity group, and give out their spiel about helping children, starving families in third-world countries, abused animals, or whatever advocacy that could garner the most donations. Once they’ve gotten your trust and pledge, you’ll sign your name on the sheet and fork out a donation that won’t feed the hungry children of the world, but will go straight to the scammer’s pocket.
How to avoid getting scammed: No matter how nice they look and even if they say it will take only 10 minutes of your time, don’t stop to listen to their spiels on the street. There are other legit and secure ways of helping charities. Go online to research about your non-profit charity group of choice and see their regulation status before making a pledge.
Kate’s tidbit: I encountered one charity peddler during my first trip to New York in 2007. I had just exited the mall when a guy holding a clipboard asked me for my name and where I’m from. When I said I’m Filipino, he replied, “Oh, I’m part Filipino, too!” then proceeded to talk about how I can help fund his charitable group that feeds hungry children, including those in the Philippines. I told him that I already support charitable projects directly in the Philippines, so I didn’t need to give donations in the US. His friendly demeanor changed in an instant. Just as I continued our small talk, he cut me off and said, “Ok, bye!” then left to stop another person in the street.
4. Closing-Out Sales
Modus operandi: Because souvenir shops, electronics stores, and other retail shops have mushroomed all over the city, the competition is tough. To get the attention of customers, the words “sale” and “going out of business” are plastered on the windows and racks, making tourists believe that they’ve come to the store at the right time for a bargain. In reality, the marked-down price is actually the regular rate and the sale signs are there forever.
How to avoid getting scammed: Don’t buy all your souvenirs from one store. If you have other days to shop, check out the rates at different stores before picking a spot to splurge on all those I Love NY t-shirts and magnets. Before buying a new gadget, research online to see the going rate and which electronic stores are reputable.
Kate’s tidbit: I learned that Chinatown is no longer the cheapest place to buy souvenirs. I found better deals in corner stores near Broadway and Times Square, some for even half the price offered in Chinatown.
5. Comedy Shows
Modus operandi: A guy with a poster and ID stops you on the street to ask, “Do you like comedy?” If you say yes, he offers you free tickets to small comedy bars where legends such as Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman supposedly did low-level stints before being making it big. The catch? You have to buy at least two drinks from the bar ($15-20 each), and the comedy show isn’t that funny.
How to avoid getting scammed: For good quality humor that won’t break the bank, book tickets to off-Broadway shows or look for free Improv and park shows around Manhattan.
Kate’s tidbit: If you really want to catch a live TV comedy, such as The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, visit their official websites to see how you can score free tickets. Warning: It’s as random as winning the lottery.
Have you ever been scammed in New York? Share your stories below.