Ticket to Nowhere

battery-parkThe arrival of spring beckons millions of tourists to New York City, and many are set on visiting the Statue of Liberty. For years, visitors have been greeted in Lower Manhattan by vendors selling boat tickets to the landmark — at least that’s the pitch.

On Wednesday, the police arrested more than a dozen ticket sellers in what officials said was a crackdown on vendors who prey on tourists by offering fake tickets to the Statue of Liberty. The vendors, some on parole for serious crimes, told tourists they were getting tickets to boats that stopped at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, though the tickets were actually for ferries that circled New York Harbor without stopping, the police said. John J. Miller, deputy police commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, said 21 vendors were facing charges of fraudulent accosting after an investigation of ticket-selling practices in and near Battery Park, where ferries to the landmarks depart. Fourteen of the suspects were in police custody, he said. “What we found in the undercover portion of this,” Commissioner Miller said, “was that these aggressive ticket sellers preyed largely on people that they identified as tourists, particularly foreign tourists, by promising them that the tickets to the Statue of Liberty boat were all sold out, but that if they bought these tickets, it would take them to Liberty Island and they would have to charge a little extra and so on.” Some tourists walking through Battery Park on Wednesday said that they had been approached by vendors pitching ferry tickets to the statue, but did not know about the scheme. Yu Hsuen Yeh, 18, a tourist from Taiwan, said she had been approached by several vendors within 10 minutes of arriving at the park.  “I thought they all went to the statue,” she said. “I didn’t know it was just one.”

Commissioner Miller said the crackdown was meant to “eliminate what was becoming a growing quality-of-life problem down there.” The police began investigating complaints about aggressive ticket sellers after a 33-year-old tourist from Arizona was assaulted in Battery Park in February after he rebuffed a vendor’s pitch. The tourist, Jeffrey White, was knocked unconscious and sustained a skull fracture. Two people were arrested and charged with assault. After the episode, the police deployed undercover officers to pose as tourists in Battery Park and near the Staten Island Ferry terminal. “What the investigation revealed was, you had a large number of people who were on parole or on probation, mostly parolees for serious crimes, including assault, narcotics and robbery, who made up the bulk of the ticket sellers,” Commissioner Miller said, “which began to explain part of the background of this pattern of criminal activity involved in the ticket sales.” The vendors worked for five different companies contracted to sell tickets for boat operators offering tours of the harbor, the police said. Three of the businesses were run by parolees, including one who managed his company while incarcerated at Rikers Island, Commissioner Miller said.

The companies routinely hired offenders who were getting out of jail and needed to be employed as a condition of parole. Commissioner Miller said the practice raised concerns for the police because it put some sex offenders in contact with tourists who were traveling with children. The vendors surfaced as a problem after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, with as many as 50 hawking tickets in the park, and at nearby subway stations and the Staten Island Ferry terminal on a daily basis, said Rafael Abreu, director of sales and marketing for Statue Cruises. The company is the only operator licensed to dock at both Liberty Island and Ellis Island. “We were overrun in Battery Park,” Mr. Abreu said. “The enforcement today is really helpful to us.”