Every city and town has tricksters, scammers, fraudsters, beggars, parasites, and cheats. If you get a lot of tourists, then you’re ripe for the picking. Al and I have done some traveling, and we’ve seen our fair share of cab drivers who took us 20 miles in a circle to go 2 miles down the road, pickpockets, shoplifters, sob stories, no-win street games, and cousins who can get you an expensive watch for a c-note (“cuz it’s a REAL-ex! That’s better than a RO-lex!”)
Those are the normal, garden-variety scam.
If you want true creativity, you’ll need to take a look at these New York City scams. Here are seven of my favorite New York City scams — and the last one was so strange, it may not have been a scam at all.
One. Selling the Brooklyn Bridge. This is a classic, and it’s why New Yorkers will tell you “if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge for sale.” Here’s how it worked. New rubes fresh off the boat from Ellis Island were told that, for a pittance (usually whatever they had with them in the way of cash or valuables), they could get a “deed” to that big shiny bridge over there. Then, you can charge people a toll to cross it! Your fortune is made. The guy who did this eventually went to jail, but he flourished for much longer than he should have.
Two. Goodspeed Actor. This one, I fell for. A mild-mannered con man dressed in a style immediately recognizable as shabby-professorial would zero in on likely looking pigeons (me) near Columbus Circle. The thing that made this guy stand out was his choice of pigeon (me) and the expertise of his pitch. Your average con goes for high volume, low quality pigeons – in other words, the tourists. Not Goodspeed Actor. He went for the obvious New Yorkers who had an interest in the arts. His spiel? He was an out of work actor down on his luck BUT…wait for it…he had landed a role playing a good part in a new musical that was opening out of town at the Goodspeed in Connecticut. Once there, food and lodging were assured, since he’d signed the contract. All he needed was a one-way bus ticket, and, by the way, are you a teacher? He had the gift of gab, all right. When I met him again two months later, I reminded him that I’d forked over ten bucks the last time he scammed me. He was charming and bright: “oh! Yes! I do remember you!” as if we had just been having a Pimm’s cups at the garden party last summer.
Three. Shoe Salesman. Shoe Salesman is wearing a nametag and a “sales associate” outfit. He’s outside a big retail shoe store, maybe on 34th street. He’s just taking a break. When a likely mark starts eyeing the shoes in the window, Shoe Salesman makes some small talk about shoes. “Yep, just got those Cole Haans in last week– they are really popular. But that color there? It’s not selling so good so the boss says I can start giving people a discount. Tell you what. Instead of $200, I will give it to you for $80 if you have the cash. What’s your size? I’ll check in the back to make sure we have it..” Rube hands over the cash, and Shoe Salesman disappears back into the store. Of course, he never comes back, because he’s melted into the crowd leaving by the other door.
Four. Tickets for the Staten Island Ferry. This one rears its ugly head periodically. It happened years ago on tours of the NY Stock Exchange, and it happened recently on the Staten Island Ferry. Works like this. Tourists are lining up to see or ride something. Advance ticket seller with a hat, shades, clipboard, tickets, and change works their way up the line “selling tickets” for however much they can get. Yes, you get a ticket. Trouble is, you didn’t need it. The ferry is free.
Five. Butterfingers. Oops! Is that my coffee/mustard/ketchup on your shirt? This one happened to Al in Barcelona, and it happens here too. Pickpocket One “accidentally” spills something on you. “Oh, my goodness! I am so sorry!” he says as he daubs your jacket with a napkin. “Not at all! No harm done! Could happen to anyone!” you say. As you are distracted, Pickpocket Two takes your phone, passport, money, etc.
Didn’t work with Al, though. As Pickpocket One “accidentally” spilled something on his jacket, Al jumped 3 feet back, started brushing vigorously at his own jacket , and yelled “JEEEEEEEESUS CHRIST WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?” This unnerved the Barcelona pickpocket, who took a powder and was not seen again.
Six. Sex and the City. You’re in a lovely open air street café, enjoying a salad and latte with friends after some shopping. You’ve placed your shopping bags under your feet, leaning against your leg so you would know if anyone takes them. You’d be able to see if anyone snuck up and tried to steal them, anyway. Suddenly, behind you, two women start arguing loudly. It starts getting juicy. “What do you mean you never had sex with my boyfriend? That’s not what Ashley said!” As is natural, you all swivel around to watch. The argument looks like it is going to spiral out of control, and the waiters are starting to call
security. Finally the wronged woman storms out the front door while her rival leaves by another way. You finish eating and discussing this turn of events. When you’re ready to leave, you find that all the bags that were hanging on the chair backs or placed on the floor are missing. Someone even switched your Cole Haan shopping bag with those new shoes for a Walmart bag stuffed with fliers. And you never even felt it.
Seven. Ladybug Season. This one still has me scratching my head. I don’t know what the scam was, but something very fishy was going on. I’m in the park, with the dog, on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Two men approach. They make it clear by their body language that they are no threat to me. One of them is tall with dark hair, and a bit of an “I’m a live wire” aura about him. The other is beefy, muscular, and had clearly done time. It’s strange how it’s possible to tell that someone has spent time in prison, even if there are no obvious outward signs. Live Wire asks casually “are there any ladybugs on the bushes?”
I wasn’t expecting that. “I haven’t seen any.” I say. “Are there usually ladybugs this time of year?” Something about this situation was just so odd, that all my New York 6th senses are kicking in. Yes, there’s a sizable population of the unstable homeless who may want to talk about ladybugs, but they don’t work in pairs. Fast talking on my part is called for. “I believe that the ladybug population varies according to seasonality, temperature, migration patterns and food supply. Are you gentlemen entomologists?” This last question was delivered by me with a hint of a smirk. Beefy Guy and I locked eyes for just a second, and in that second I could see he realized that whatever they were planning wasn’t going to work. “Oh, not me, but my friend is!” I glanced at Live Wire, who was busy studying a leaf, and again addressed the beefy one. “Perhaps you and your … friend … could check in with the entomology department at the American Museum of Natural History to learn more about ladybugs and New York City parks.” They left, and I watched them go. I wish I knew what the plan had been – probably was a doozy.