Forget the shell game: Keep an eye on your wallet 

On Tuesday, concerts and fireworks will flood San Francisco with light, sound and people, generating smiles and excitement as well as plenty of opportunities for con artists and pickpockets.

The holiday weekend will draw tens of thousands of visitors from across the region and the globe, according to the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. While most of the country wraps up a long weekend, con artists and pickpockets will be working overtime, police warned.

"The most common we’ll see is pickpocket-type crimes," Fraud Inspector Gregory Ovanessian said, "but three-card monte and the shell game are popular near the wharf."

But other scams, such as "rock-in-a-box," the "ATM grab," "help needed" and the "pigeon drop" (see box) are not foreign to The City.

In three-card monte, the victim bets that he can keep his eye on one of three cards as the con artist moves them around on a small table. Usually the unsuspecting victim will watch somebody in league with the crook win big. When the victim steps up to try his hand, however, the crook switches the cards or otherwise fixes the game so the victim loses.

The shell game is similar and requires the victim to keep his eye on an object hidden under one of three shells. Sometimes, Ovanessian said, the crook will wait until money begins stacking up on the table, then an accomplice will yell that the police are coming and both crook and victim abandon the game, the victim believing he might be arrested for participating.

Con artists and pickpockets have unlimited opportunities to disappear in a large crowd.

Ovanessian recommended men keep their wallets in the front pocket of their pants or the inside pocket of their jackets.

"When it’s just hanging out the back pocket, it’s an easy target," he said.

He recommended women keep a hand on their purses and not hang them from the backs of chairs or leave them unattended.

Most pickpocket crimes involve some kind of bump, jostle or other invasion of personal space, Ovanessian said. He said people should be aware if a stranger starts getting too close and should keep their wits about them.

Ovanessian encouraged people who find themselves victimized by a pickpocket or con artist to report the crime. He said that is how the department learns where such criminals are active and implements a sting or other operation to help eradicate them.

» Rock-in-a-box

A stranger with a box claims to have a stolen laptop, and he offers to sell it to you cheap. The box is sealed. The stranger is in a hurry and will come down on his price. But it isn’t worth it for a stack of magazines.

» ATM grab

You’re taking money out of an ATM when someone says, "Excuse me, you dropped $20." When you bend down, the thief grabs your cash from the machine and takes off.

» Help needed

A stranger begins a story about an impounded car or stranded relative. The person needs a loan and is happy to let you hold his ID or bank card for collateral. The thief is long gone with your money by the time you suspect the card is stolen.

» Pigeon drop

The con artist has money (a wad of paper with a bill wrapped around it) and wants to give it to charity. For some reason, he needs to leave the area, and he wants you to distribute the money. He’ll ask you to withdraw money from the bank to prove you don’t need the charity money. The criminal then has you put your money in a handkerchief, along with the money for charity. You open the bundle after the suspect has left to discover the suspect has switched it for one full of paper.

amartin@examiner.com

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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