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Captain warns parkgoers: Don’t get ‘slammed’ by basketball donation scam

BY THE VILLAGE SUN | Hold onto your phone!

That’s the main warning that Captain Jason Zeikel of the 6th Precinct is giving people to avoid being ripped off by what he calls the “basketball donation scam” in Washington Square Park.

The con has been seen for a few months now, and spiked in August, he said. How it works is that a youth approaches someone — usually another young person who is usually sitting down or lying on the grass — and asks for a donation for his basketball team fundraiser. If the conman finds a mark who wants to give, the fraudster then asks if he can have the donor’s phone so that he can type in his own username for Venmo or other cash-transfer apps. However, once the phone is handed over, the phony fundraiser will transfer more money than was agreed to — then, before handing it back to its owner, either switch the phone onto airplane mode or delete the app, buying time to flee before the victim realizes he or she has been duped. Sometimes the thief doesn’t even bother with changing the phone’s settings but just hands the phone back and runs off.

Zeikel said, so far, police have made “multiple arrests” in combating this crime pattern in the park. Most of the individuals are teenagers from Jersey City, according to the local top cop. However, they don’t wear basketball shirts or anything else to identify themselves as ballplayers, or hold signs asking for donations, which makes it more challenging for officers to spot them.

“We’ve had people take over $2,000 and hundreds of dollars” from victims, Zeikel said. “We have about a half-dozen incidents on record — mostly in the park.”

When caught, the scammers are being charged with grand larceny, even if they are under age 18, the captain said. At least one of the cases is currently being prosecuted by the Manhattan district attorney. Cops are still trying to identify more people involved in the con.

“This is organized,” Zeikel said. “They’re coming here with a plan. It’s more than one person.”

The Venmo thieves, who are usually in the park in pairs, typically strike from the afternoon into the early evening.

“They seem to like people in parks who are stationary — seated or lying down,” he said. “It’s not as easy to do this if the person is walking. We call it ‘basketball donation scams.’ Some people call it ‘Venmo scams.’ It also used to be called ‘candy scams’ [where the swindlers sell candy], but no one is really doing candy anymore.”

Zeikel said people have to really think twice about ever giving a phone to a stranger.

“It’s 2023,” he stated. “When you hand over your phone with your bank account or Venmo open, you’re essentially handing over a blank check.”

One woman was fleeced for around $2,000 — which was all she had in the bank.

“I had one victim tell me they wiped out her life savings,” Zeikel said of the woman above. “She was crying. I told her, ‘It’s not your fault.’

“It’s extremely troubling to me,” he said. “I hate having to hear a victim tell me they lost a thousand dollars.”

He said other people in other Manhattan precincts also report having been targeted by the scam, often in parks.

As for whether credit card companies and banks will restore the stolen funds, he said, “It’s a case-by-case basis.”

If people are victimized by the phone scam, they should call 911 immediately, he said.

“The message is don’t hand over your phone to a random person to make a donation,” the captain stressed. “If you want to make a donation, do so to a legitimate charity.”

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