Six Ways to Avoid the Classic “Broken Bottle Scam”

Crime
A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
March 22 2013 11:58 AM

Six Ways to Avoid the Classic “Broken Bottle Scam”

Broken Bottles
Broken bottles

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

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Earlier this week, I was walking to the subway near Times Square when another man brushed up against me. The collision caused him to drop a plastic bag that, from the shattering sound it made when it hit the ground, seemed to hold some sort of glass bottle. The guy started yelling, accusing me of bumping into him and breaking his bottle. As I started to walk away (I care little for other people’s bottles), he became agitated and grabbed my shoulder. I was thrilled. Several years in New York, and I’ve never been mugged, accosted, or grifted. But now I was being targeted by one of the city’s most persistent scams: the broken bottle trick.

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Here’s how it works. A con man walks around carrying a bag filled with broken or breakable glass and deliberately bumps into a gullible person (i.e., anyone wearing a fanny pack) and drops his cargo. The mark is accused of breaking the bottle and guilted or intimidated into paying for a replacement. There are several variations on this trick—sometimes the grifter uses eyeglasses, sometimes he claims that the mark broke a bottle of prescription medicine. Broken glass can be very lucrative: One longtime bottle trickster, sentenced (crazily) to 20 years to life for attempting to scam a visiting Swedish naval officer before threatening him with a knife, said in court that he pulled the trick up to 10 times per day. Assuming $20 to $40 per successful scam, that’s a pretty decent day’s wage.

Obviously, the easiest thing to do when faced with an aggrieved, broken-bottle-wielding con man is to pay the money, avoid confrontation, and walk away feeling terrible about yourself. But this is America, and in America, as I understand it, we don’t give in to terrorists or small-time hustlers. So here are a few suggestions for what you might do if you find yourself caught up in this scam.

Run away, toward a crowd. The bottle scam often works because the victims feel physically threatened by the scammers. Don’t let yourself get into a situation where you feel like you’re in danger. If someone bumps into you and you hear the sound of broken glass, run away while yelling loudly for help. These guys don’t want to attract attention. Odds are they won’t follow you.

Raise your voice. To be clear: Running away (and other non-confrontational responses) is still probably the best strategy here, but sometimes you just don’t want to move. Fair enough. If you do stick around, though, you have to give the scammer the sense that he picked the wrong person to mess with. The bottle tricksters are betting that you’ll be intimidated by them. But if you yell louder than they do, or trump their menace with some craziness of your own, they might back down and look for an easier target. Of course, they might also respond by trumping you with a whole new level of craziness, but those are the risks you run when you’re a tough-talking badass who doesn’t take any guff.

Extend the encounter. Here’s an interesting example of how to deal with a scammer: “Nair (Naim) Jabbar had two pairs of broken eyeglasses in a bag when cops arrested him last month. The ex-con bumped into his latest victim on W. 53rd St. and Fifth Ave., court records show. ‘You broke my glasses! You own me $125!’ Jabbar, 41, yelled. But when his victim asked him to come back to his office to figure out a solution, Jabbar slunk off, court papers said.” This strategy makes sense, and is perhaps something to consider. Who doesn’t hate going up to offices?

Demand proof of what you broke. If you’ve got the time and want to engage with a con man, this is another option. Gothamist gives an example of how this strategy might work, from a guy who was accused of breaking a bottle of prescription medicine: “I said, you know, I'm happy to pay for it if it is what you claim it is, but I want to see what was in the bag. He assures me that it’s fine, that I should just walk east with him to the place. … I refuse after he won’t tell me the name of the place or what it was he bought, and I walk back to the trash can … and I look inside the two black plastic bags, to find two broken SoBe bottles.” Though I guess SoBe is a sort of medicine, if what’s ailing you is a lack of awesomely extreme beverage sensations, that is.

Carry around your own bag of bottles. OK, this one might not be the most realistic idea, and it definitely requires some advance planning, but I can’t think of a better way to confound a bottle trickster than by dropping your own bag upon contact and demanding that he reimburse you. “I broke your bottle? No way, man, you broke my bottle!” Then you shake hands and go on your way.

Hope that the scammer is incompetent. This was how I got out of my own bottle-trick incident. Maybe the guy forgot his lines—or maybe he actually was carrying a valuable bottle of some sort—but he never got around to asking me for any money. “All I want is for you to say you’re sorry,” he screamed. “I’m sorry!” I screamed back. “Thank you,” he said, and I walked away, a bit confused but none the worse for wear. I suspect it was his first day on the job.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.