The peak season is beginning earlier this year for criminals, panhandlers and cyber thieves to use their aggressive and creative tactics to steal money and personal information from residents and tourists, according to shoppers and businesses in the San Antonio area.
A bulletin board posting in a northcentral restaurant on Monday advises customers that the “SAPD WARNS OF AGGRESSIVE PANHANDLING IN THIS AREA,” stating the police are “well aware of aggressive panhandlers on Blanco, 281 and 1604 shopping centers. These people are from Haven For Hope and every day they are given a free bus ticket to go out and get a job.”
“They usually go to North Star Mall or Blanco and 1604 areas and panhandle,” the posting continued. “Many of them are substance abusers. Captain Laura Anderson with the SAPD North Patrol states not to give them any money. They are aggressive because they spend the money on their substance of choice.”
“Please exercise caution when going to your cars and stay alert to others in the vicinity. Lock your vehicle if someone you don’t know approaches you. There are SAPD (San Antonio Fear Free Environment) officers in these areas that are very aware and doing all they can to deal with these panhandlers. If you encounter an aggressor, please get to a place of safety or go back inside the store and call 911.”
Similar postings can be seen in other restaurants and business on the IH-35 and IH-10 corridors. One popular restaurant on IH-10 near Wurzbach warns customers to “lock your car, hide your belongings and stay away from strangers who might approach you.”
According to Municipal Court records, over 2,000 related calls are fielded by police each year from unwanted solicitors from panhandlers and con-artists. Police and local leaders have termed these incidents as “disturbing and disruptive to residents and businesses and contributes to the loss of access to and enjoyment of public places and to a sense of fear, intimidation and disorder,” and have attempted to introduce ordinances and increase fines for such activities.
Pressure from local media and advocates for the homeless have caused civic leaders to back down in many cities across the country, but many citizens, and victims and their families of the criminals, side with the general consensus of the police that aggressive solicitation can be dangerous and costly. In Denver, police have been ordered to back down from enforcing panhandling restrictions because of a victory from the American Civil Liberties Union. On Halloween, a 71-year-old panhandler was struck down in traffic causing more debate about bans. Last week a television news broadcast aired a story on a 25-year-old panhandler in Houston who does it to avoid working.
A recent Tripadvisor posting, on the popular tourist rating and recommendation website explained one visitor’s experience to the downtown area by giving the San Antonio Riverwalk only two out of a five star rating.
“This was my 4th trip to the San Antonio Riverwalk and I was very disappointed,” the reviewer noted. “There were numerous panhandlers bothering people on the Riverwalk and many were drinking booze covered in paper bags. This certainly isn’t the Riverwalk I was use to visiting and there were 200 people in my group who all felt the same way and ate in the hotel to avoid the riff raff. Never once saw a cop on the Riverwalk.”
One police officer familiar with the problem, who asked not to be identified indicated, that although the downtown area does have “too many homeless, there are con-artists and scammers too, and especially in the more outlying areas at shopping centers and busy intersections.”
Some citizens are reporting solicitors approaching them aggressively at parking meters throughout downtown and near hospitals.
“I am afraid to go to the downtown Baptist Hospital anymore because they are coming out of the bushes trying to scare me into giving them money,” said Lucia Diaz. “I try to come when I know there will be many people around because I am so scared.”
Police have a difficult time enforcing these laws because some courts have thrown out the cases citing them as unconstitutional due to free speech violations. However, more citizens and businesses are demanding the City Council to take a more aggressive stance on the threatening and intimidating solicitors.
“We are a giving people,” said Diaz. “But people need to understand San Antonio has the United Way, Sam (Ministries), churches and Haven For Hope to help these people. They should not be giving money to people on the streets because of fear tactics. Make them get help according to the law and the generosity of people, not because they are scaring us to do it.”
“If you are going to give them anything, give them something to eat,” Diaz continued. “There are too many of them using the money generous to feed their addictions with alcohol and drugs. The economy is bad enough, but we don’t need to be encouraging them. We are becoming a society of enablers.”
Meanwhile, police and security guards are noticing thieves are out at shopping centers and parking lots preying on unaware and potential victims much earlier than the traditional holiday season. Officials are warning people not to provide anyone in person and on the Internet with their account numbers and personal identification numbers (PIN) if asked or solicited.
One common scam involves victims getting an e-mail message guiding the receiver to a spoofed Web site, a fake site or copy of a real Web site that is designed to trick victims into providing their personal information.
“Consumers are encouraged to beware of bargain e-mails advertising one day only promotions for recognized brands or Web sites,” the FBI is warning. “Fraudsters often use the hot items of the season to lure bargain hunters into providing credit card information. The old adage “if it seems too good to be true” is a good barometer to use to legitimize e-mails.”
Scammers know they can swindle bargain hunters on Black Friday or Cyber Monday by offering “one day only” sales.
“Consumers are encouraged to beware of e-mails, text messages, or postings that may lead to fraudulent sites offering bargains on brand name products,” the FBI cautions.
The FBI offers these tips to avoid becoming a victim of cyber fraud:
- Do not respond to unsolicited (spam) e-mail.
- Do not click on links contained within an unsolicited e-mail.
- Be cautious of e-mail claiming to contain pictures in attached files, as the files may contain viruses. Only open attachments from known senders. Always run a virus scan on attachment before opening.
- Avoid filling out forms contained in e-mail messages that ask for personal information.
- Always compare the link in the e-mail to the web address link you are directed to and determine if they match.
- Log on directly to the official Web site for the business identified in the e-mail, instead of “linking” to it from an unsolicited e-mail. If the e-mail appears to be from your bank, credit card issuer, or other company you deal with frequently, your statements or official correspondence from the business will provide the proper contact information.
- Contact the actual business that supposedly sent the e-mail to verify that the e-mail is genuine.
- If you are requested to act quickly or there is an emergency, it may be a scam. Fraudsters create a sense of urgency to get you to act impulsively.
- If you receive a request for personal information from a business or financial institution, always look up the main contact information for the requesting company on an independent source (phone book, trusted internet directory, legitimate billing statement, etc.) and use that contact information to verify the legitimacy of the request.
Remember, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.