5 Scams To Avoid In New York City

From hailing taxis to buying tickets at MSG.

NYC scams
Getting Out Of An OFFICIAL Yellow Taxi. PHOTO Kaitlyn Rosati

After having been a victim of scams in several cities around the world, I realized many tourists probably aren’t aware of the scams in my own city: New York. While NYC is unfortunately full of way more scams than the following, here’s a good idea to get you started on what to be aware of.

1. MetroCard Sellers at Jamaica Station

If you arrive to New York City via John F. Kennedy Airport and make the decision to not take a taxi (which will save you at least $50), you will most likely be transferring from the AirTrain to the MTA at Jamaica Station. Once you arrive to the subway, right before you swipe at the turnstiles, there will be men and women “selling Metrocards,” and all you have to do is give them cash. They will make fake promises of anything they can think of: that the cards have “one free ride” (this literally does not exist, New York City doesn’t give much for free), that it comes with a roundtrip AirTrain transfer (also, not a thing), or that the swipes are at a discounted rate. They see someone who is blatantly a tourist (they’ve tried to even get me when I have my backpack on), and pounce. Ignore them. Don’t even look at them. The best way to avoid any issue or contact with them is by simply not engaging. Only purchase a MetroCard from an authorized MTA teller or machine (every station in NYC has several machines that take both cash and card).

Tip: If you plan to be in NYC for one week, buy the weekly metro pass, and avoid taking taxis at all costs. Though the MTA has a lot of maintenance issues, it overall is reliable in getting you anywhere in any borough.

2. Being Offered a Ride at JFK or LGA Airport From An Unofficial Taxi Driver

NYC scams
Hailing A Taxi. PHOTO Kaitlyn Rosati

When you land in New York, after you collect your bags and are about to exit the airport, there will be inconspicuous men that say, “Taxi?” Sure, part of New York’s charm is taking a yellow taxi, but these men are not official drivers, meaning they can pick any number in the world and charge you, and get away with it. It is 100% illegal and yet it is still a common practice, because most tourists don’t realize they are being ripped off. They will often bring you over to a parking area, and it may just be their regular car or a black car (it will not be a yellow cab), and sometimes they even have a meter in there. That meter means nothing; they can put it at any rate they want. It’s all just more of a ploy to get you.

Tip: There is an official taxi line at all major airports in NYC (including Newark International in New Jersey). If you choose to take a taxi, be aware that at minimum it will be around $50 from JFK and $25 from LGA (and Newark is often around $100). Wait in line until you are met with an employee who will give you a pink slip once you tell him/her where you are headed.

3. Buying Tickets Outside of Madison Square Garden

NYC scams
A REAL Lady Gaga Ticket (in Chicago). PHOTO Kaitlyn Rosati

This is a rough one, because my sister fell victim to this when she was a broke college student trying to buy us Lady Gaga tickets back in 2009. Men and women will stand in front of Madison Square Garden, or nearby, and offer to sell you tickets the week/night of the show. You can only pay cash, and they somehow manage to print tickets that look nearly identical to the real deal. You can often negotiate which makes the deal feel a little sweeter. That is because, 99% of the time, you are being sold fake tickets, and that $600 you just spent on Lady Gaga tickets for three people can be kissed goodbye. The only way to ensure you are getting real tickets is by buying from the venue itself, or using an authorized website such as StubHub or TicketMaster (and sometimes, even StubHub will scam you, but you will be guaranteed your money back, or a new set of tickets. I know because that happened to me!).

Tip: Just… don’t do it. My sister called the police immediately after realizing what had happened to her, and they told her one family fell victim and paid $6,000 to Madonna tickets. My sister thought she stood a chance at finding the perpetrators because it had JUST happened, and there were cameras where the exchange took place, but no such luck.

4. “Going Up” The Empire State Building

NYC scams
Top of The Rock With My Friend Katie. PHOTO Kaitlyn Rosati

Outside of Empire State Building (and all along 34th Street) are men and women in blue vests with badges that say “Authorized Ticket Sellers.” You will hear, “Going up?” by all of them which is a shortened way of asking if you’d like to go to the top of the Empire State Building. While going to the top of the Empire State is high on most people’s tourist list of what to do / see in NYC (as it should be, though I personally prefer Rockefeller), do not purchase a ticket from anyone on the street (I bet you’re starting to see a pattern in NYC scams). You can easily buy a ticket on the Empire State website, or go directly inside the entrance on Fifth Ave and buy one there.

Tip: If you buy online, you don’t have to wait as long and can show your ticket on your phone, saving both paper and time!

5. Times Square Characters

NYC scams
Giving Cookie Monster A Hug. PHOTO Kaitlyn Rosati

This one is both hilarious and extremely New York. Did you ever think you would get into a brawl with Cookie Monster? Well, it could certainly happen if you decide to take a picture with him in Times Square and don’t give a good tip. Of course, none of the characters tell you this. They simply say, “Photo?” and often tourists take pictures with them without thinking twice. But, Elmo and Cookie Monster can get pretty aggressive if you don’t give them at least $1, and they have been known to demand more. Yes, simply for a photo, they are asking you to shell over your hard-earned cash, so think twice if that photo is really worth it.

Tip: There are signs that say, “Tipping Characters is Optional,” but note that the characters both expect it and rely on it, so be a good person if you need that Instagram photo and just leave them a dollar.

The best advice I can give for anyone visiting this fast-paced bustling city is use your brain and follow your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, or if it feels too good to be true, then you are most likely getting scammed. New Yorkers are shameless in the ways they have to make money sometimes, and unfortunately, tourists are often the biggest prey.

Kaitlyn has lived in NYC for 12 years.

Kaitlyn Rosati


Originally from New York, Kaitlyn was a musician/bartender before she left it all behind to embark on a solo round-the-world backpacking trip. She is passionate about preserving the environment, learning about gender equality throughout the world, eating anything that’s placed in front of her, saying hi to every animal she meets, and jumping off of cliffs into pretty blue waters.

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