Tour Ticket Hawkers, Long the Target of Complaints, Now All but Gone

Last month, ticket sellers awaited tourists arriving from the South Ferry subway station. As of Feb. 1, they and other ticket vendors who approached people on Peter Minuet Plaza were gone. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib 

Feb. 21, 2018

A welcome calm has settled over the tourist-heavy sidewalks and plazas around The Battery. Gone are all but a handful of the ticket hawkers, and with them their aggressive and oft-alleged disceitful ways.

On Feb. 1, the final boat to use middlemen tour ticket sellers whose tactics drew unending complaints was evicted from its city-owned dock. The new peace follows a history of frustrated efforts by the NYPD and the city to reign in the use of sellers by cruise boat operators.

“We saw the entire vending force just disappear overnight,” said Rafael Abreu, a spokesman for Statue Cruises, the only tour boats allowed to disembark on Liberty Island and Ellis Island. Abreu said his company, which returns a portion of its revenues to the city, lost 10 percent of its business to the sellers. Tourists have often complained that the vendors deceived them with promises that their tickets would get them onto the island, or claimed a three-hour wait for the ferry that would take them there. Executives from the company were expected to appear before Community Board 1’s Quality of Life Committee Thursday to thank the NYPD for its help, and ask for support in maintaining police presence in the area.

Ending the vendor onslaught has been a personal mission of the 1st Precinct’s commanding officer, Dep. Inspector Mark Iocco, and his top cop on the ground, Sgt. Daniel Feldman. “It’s the number one condition in the 1st Precinct, and I’ve been dealing with this for three years now,” Iocco said.

Police beefed up their presence and made arrests in the area in 2016 after a ticket seller punched a tourist in the face, resulting in a fractured skull when the victim fell. That incident and others prompted city legislation that required ticket sellers to be licensed through the Department of Consumer Affairs and wear identifying vests. Hornblower, then seen as the prime user of illegal vendors, became a target of the citys Department of Investigations and ceased the practice. Later that year, New York Water Taxi followed. But the problems persisted.

A shooting near The Battery last April left a bystander and the intended victim wounded in what police say was a turf war between two factions of ticket sellers.

Iocco and Feldman had then turned their focus to two other companies, New York Water Tours and the boat Queen of Hearts. Iocco compiled arrest and other alleged incriminating data on their vending enterprises, ammunition for the city agencies with oversight of the the boat operations. In August, the Department of Transportation yanked the license of New York Water Tours, which had enjoyed choice docking privileges next to the Staten Island Ferry terminal. “Water Tours violated several license terms, including provisions related to safety and security, which led to the revocation,” the DOT said in a statement.

Then, in December, a judge ordered the Queen of Hearts to halt its use of third-party sellers for its boat at Pier 36 near Montgomery Street, where tourists had been shuttled by bus.

“We were telling [the EDC] all of the things that were going on there about these ticket sellers scamming tourists, lying to tourists, being aggressive, selling tickets without a [Department of Consumer Affairs] license but they continued to do it,” Iocco said.

In a statement, the EDC said it terminated the contract after “multiple requests” to stop working with third-party ticket sellers. Peter Vuli, owner of the Queen of Hearts, called the charge “one hundred percent false. EDC never ever contacted me, never asked me to stop working with third-party vendors. I contacted them. I sent them emails, I sent them registered letters. They did not respond to one.” Vuli declined to share those emails with the Trib. According to Feldman, Vuli was “extremely aware of what was going on.”

With the Queen of Hearts out of the tour business in December (a judge later ruled it could operate through January), the enterprising ticket sellers lost no time in finding a new boat—in Weehawken, NJ.

“The condition improved 100 percent down there for about three or four days,” Iocco said. “And that’s when we were on high alert here. Because I knew these ticket sellers weren’t making any money, but we didn’t know what they were going to do next.”

What they did, according to Iocco, was begin bussing unsuspecting tourists by the hundreds, through midtown traffic and the Lincoln Tunnel, to the New Jersey boat.

On that first day of selling, Iocco noted, “there was like 300 people” at South and Broad Streets, waiting for a bus to take them to Weehawken. “It was a disaster.”

“So the next day we were out there in full force,” he continued. “I personally boarded the bus [with Lt. Anthony Mascia] and asked everyone on the bus if they knew they were going to New Jersey. And a majority of the people didn’t.”

Feldman says he had a talk with the boat owners and the operation eventually stopped.

With those sellers and the Queen of Hearts vendors out of the picture, the area has enjoyed its longest pause in heavy ticket hawking in years. “If you look at the big picture I think we gotta be pleased with the results,” Iocco said.

The boats are gone but the vigilance continues. Lately, a $40, one-hour bus tour of four attractions within walking distance, ending with a boat ride tour of the Statue of Liberty—via the free Staten Island Ferry—is being sold by a handful of ticket sellers. Feldman says the operation is unauthorized by the city’s oversight agencies.

A scam by a few rogue vendors involves the sale of fake Queen of Hearts tickets. On Tuesday, in the tiny NYPD office in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, Feldman interrupted his interview with the Trib when one of his officers appeared with four tourists from California and the two phony tickets they had just purchased for $35 each. One ticket, the foursome was told, was good for two people. Feldman took a description and sent officers out to look for the perpetrator but they had no luck.

“It’s frustrating,” he said, “because I worked so hard to get it to where it is right now.”

Feldman has six officers under his command, two who cover the terminal. But he said he takes the deceitful tactics personally and will protectively interject himself into the hustle.

“I view the tourists and the people who live and work around here as my family,” he said. “And if my family were to come here to visit, I don’t want them to be lied to.”

At times, he said, he would approach tourists and vendors mid-sale and just listen. The seller would either turn to him and profess to be “just giving information,” or walk off. “I cannot tell you how many families I’ve taken away from those people,” he said.

Sometimes he observes in plain clothes or peers through binoculars from across the street. “I’ll go in the Indian Museum, I’ll go by CitiBank. I’ll watch people,” he said. “I know everything they do and when they change it up.”

“You had a grey hoodie when you locked up that one girl,” said a tour bus worker near the Bowling Green station, as he and Feldman talked tactics. “I didn’t even recognize you and I was right there.”

Feldman knows the regulars in the area, the legal tour bus ticket sellers (who are also hurt by the middlemen), the t-shirt sellers, the hot dog guys, and they help provide information. “I need the eyes and ears out here,” he said.

“That was the whole mission from the beginning,” Iocco said, “to have one steady guy that could build those types of relationships and get information. Feldman was the right choice.”

Now, the sergeant said, two boat companies are looking to start up tours and use third-party sellers, but doing it legally, they say, with a different crew of vendors. Feldman has spoken to some of the new sellers and he said he is hopeful.

“I tell them come out here exactly as you’re supposed to. Wear what you’re supposed to wear, be where you’re supposed to be, be licensed, and just don’t lie to people.”

Then, he added, “you’ll never have a problem with me.”