Tales From the Cops
Published: June 2009
By Al Weisel
Big-city cops see tourists get scammed everyday. Here's their advice on how not to be a chump
Hanging on a wall in the office of New York police lieutenant George Pagan is a still from Casablanca captioned "Round up the usual suspects." But when it comes to crimes against tourists, "Round up the usual victims" might be more appropriate.
Crime is down in the Big Apple, but the commanding officer of the detective squad at the city's Midtown North precinct still gets exasperated when he flips through tourists' crime reports. Little has changed in his 31 years on the force. "The majority of things happen because people are careless," he says, shaking his head. "Minimal caution would stop a lot of this stuff." And not just in New York. Miami Beach police detective Al Boza says crimes that tourists report there usually have one thing in common: "They've almost always been preventable."
Although some tourists commit outrageously stupid acts—such as the European who was robbed in Miami Beach recently when he left all his luggage on the beach while he went for a swim—many are victims of behavior they might not ordinarily think twice about. "Go into a restaurant and count how many women have their pocketbooks hanging over the chair," says Pagan. "That's an incredible invitation. You should have it between your feet or beside you." It takes just a couple of seconds to reach into a purse and grab a wallet. "We find that some thieves are stealing only one credit card," he says. "You might not realize it until you get home."
The most common crime against tourists is "distraction theft," committed by groups called "lick teams." As some members of the team distract the victim and everyone around him, another removes his property. Robert Duvall of Las Vegas's Tourist Safety Unit recalls an incident in which a victim who had $10,000 sitting on a casino cashier's counter was distracted by someone from a lick team who dropped coins on the floor. When the victim bent down to pick up the coins, a cohort grabbed the cash. (Luckily, it was all caught on videotape, and the thieves were nabbed.)
In San Francisco, according to Sergeant Stephen Gudelj of the city's Special Investigations Unit, thieves have even feigned heart attacks to divert victims while a confederate lifted their belongings. "Anytime something out of the ordinary happens, start looking around because it may not be what it's cracked up to be," he warns. Of course, people really do have heart attacks, but Gudelj says there is often a telltale sign of a fake one: "Watch for people not looking at the victim, as if they expected it to happen."
People are not always who they say they are, even if they're dressed for the part. Once at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, a scam artist donned a blue sports coat, white shirt, and tie and told visitors that they'd have to check their cameras and camcorders with him if they wanted to go inside. When they went back to retrieve their belongings, he was gone. "You have to ask for identification," Pagan says. "That goes for museums and other attractions, and especially in your hotel room. If someone comes to your door and says he's from hotel security, ask for ID or call the front desk to find out whether someone was sent up."
In Florida, according to Officer Juan Viamontes of Orlando's International Drive Unit, which specializes in tourist-related crimes, a South American gang of 200 to 500 people working in small groups is responsible for most distraction thefts in the state. During the last two weeks of this summer, the gang, which usually targets busy malls, snatched about $30,000 from 37 victims using deceptively simple techniques. Sometimes a group crowded the victim and picked his pocket. In other instances, one gang member went up to tourists and distracted them with a silly question while another robbed them. "In one of the incidents someone asked, 'Is this shirt for a man or a woman?' " says Viamontes.
Your best defense is to stay alert. "If your eyes are distracted, keep your hands on your property," says Las Vegas's Duvall. "If your hands are distracted, keep your eyes on your property."
Besides restaurants and malls, the most common site of theft is hotel lobbies. Many tourists have a false sense of safety when checking in, but police say more and more guests are losing their bags while registering. "If you've got a hundred people walking around with luggage, it's hard to pick yours out of a crowd when someone takes it," says Duvall.
Though lobby thefts are usually perpetrated by outsiders, most room thefts are committed by employees. "If you leave money or jewelry around, chances are they'll steal it," says Viamontes. "And they usually steal an amount you wouldn't notice—ten dollars, twenty dollars." Pagan reports that his department helped one top New York hotel set up a sting operation that illustrated just how rampant the problem is: "We left out bait money, and the hotel stopped us because they caught too many employees."
Tourists are safer than they've been in years, and with minimal effort, they could be safer still. "In addition to packing your passport and clothes," says Miami Beach's Boza, "pack your common sense."