N.Y. Con Artists See Promise in the Holidays

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Con artists ply their trade on Manhattan's streets all year round. But they particularly like the holiday season, when tender-hearted tourists are more likely to donate to a charity or pick up a chocolate bar to benefit a kid's school. Ginny McNally reports that holiday largesse sometimes stays right in the collector's pocket.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The decorations are up, the musak is playing at the mall, the holiday season has arrived. And with all the yuletide spirit in the air, many con artists have hit the street, looking for their winter dupes. It's happening all around the country, and now NPR has learned that some of these swindlers are working in, of all places, New York City.

We are shocked, and so is reporter Virginia McNally.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

VIRGINIA McNALLY: The Salvation Army's bell ringers are out at Bloomingdale's department store in Manhattan and around their country. People are doing their shopping, and tourists are converging at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.

(Soundbite of loudspeaker)

McNALLY: Nearby, at Penn Station, Christian Parker was waiting for a train when he was approached by a man who claimed his wallet was stolen.

Mr. CHRISTIAN PARKER: I don't know. He was a regular guy, looked like he was normal - whatever normal is in New York. And he asked me if he could borrow money to get on the train.

McNALLY: Traveler's Aid, which helps stranded people, says there is help readily available if a person's wallet is truly stolen so they don't have to beg. And there are other cons.

Mr. PARKER: And all of a sudden, this guy just, he appeared right in front of us.

McNALLY: Francis Richard, a tourist from Canada, was with his wife and friends in Time Square. The man claimed to represent a charity and sold them a baseball cap for $10.

Mr. FRANCIS RICHARD: He was just like a pro. I mean, he was real.

McNALLY: Richard says later, he saw the same hat selling for $5.

Mr. RICHARD: And then we started to laugh a bit, and I said maybe this guy is not the guy we thought he was.

McNALLY: Cynthia Auerbach(ph) of Fairhaven, New Jersey says it's hard to know what to do.

Ms. CYNTHIA AUERBACH: Well, you see these great, big plastic containers, and they're collecting money for the homeless, and they'll say a penny will help, or whatever, and I never know whether they're legitimate or not, and I don't give them money.

McNALLY: She's doing exactly the right thing, says Rex Davidson, president of Goodwill Industries of New York and New Jersey.

Mr. REX DAVIDSON (Goodwill Industries of New York and New Jersey): The rule of thumb is you probably shouldn't give cash to someone who comes up to you on the street because you just don't know where that goes.

McNALLY: In New York City in 1997, authorities intervened after deaf mute immigrants from Mexico said they were smuggled into the U.S. with promises of jobs,but instead were forced to solicit money from subway riders and pedestrians and deliver it to a boss. Davidson says it's best to give to a charity you know.

Mr. DAVIDSON: What I would say is don't let the fear of giving to the wrong cause keep you from giving this holiday season.

McNALLY: You can check out charitable organizations you don't know by going online at give.org, guidestar.org or charitynavigator.org. And most charities also have their own Web site.

For NPR News, I'm Virginia McNally in New York.

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