42 Most Common Tourist Scams in USA

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Canyons, glaciers, deserts, rainforests, beaches, cities, skyscrapers, towns, music, Hollywood, you name it, the USA has it. As one of the world’s superpowers, Uncle Sam has an astounding list of experiences to offer to make your holiday the trip of a lifetime.

However, with the third largest population in the world, the USA is also home to a number of criminals and scammers. Over the years, these scum have  perfected quite a couple of tricks up their sleeves to fleece you of your money. Read on to learn how to protect yourself on this trip of a lifetime!

 

A. TOURIST SPOTS/ACTIVITIES

1. Music artist

This is a scam that is common in New York City (Times Square especially or the Las Vegas strip).

An overly friendly guy will approach you and offer a free CD of his music. He claims that you would be doing him a huge favour if you were to accept it and play it in your country. Some would even autograph the CD as a show of sincerity.

Should you accept the CD, you will then be asked for payment. If you refuse, the scammer will refuse to take back the CD and make a scene claiming that you have stolen it. Some would even have a gang of accomplices surround you and pressurize you into paying.

Rule of thumb:

There are actually legitimate sellers. But to spare yourself the trouble, spot these sellers from afar and avoid them.

 

2. Fake takeout menu

This is an easy scam to fall for, as it looks so believable. As the name suggests, these scammers will slip fake takeout menus under your hotel room door. Should you order through the menu, the scammers will get your credit card information and you know what happens next.

Orlando/Disneland seems to be the hotspot for this crime. Despite efforts by the authorities to clean it up, the scam still exists, probably because it is an easy and lucrative one.

Rule of thumb:

Double check with the hotel reception before ordering, or order room service instead.

 

3. Hot dog mustard scam

This usually happens in crowded places, where a man eating a hot dog (a mustard tube in a bun actually) “accidentally” squirts mustard over you.

He will help you clean up, forcefully even if he were to reject his help. This is to create time and space for his accomplice to make off with your luggage or your valuables.

This is a common scam around the world (e.g. Argentina, UAE) just in different variations (e.g. bird poo, spilled liquid, green liquid, white liquid, spit, etc).

Rule of thumb:

Keep your bags close with you and valuables secure. Carry a photocopy of your passport/ID instead of the real thing. Leave your valuables in your hotel’s safe. Consider using a spare wallet or money belt.

Also, be wary around those eating a hot dog in crowded places (airports and malls largely). If anyone spills something on you and tries to help, stand your ground and push them away forcefully.

 

4. The three card Monte scam

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Besides in the US, the shell game is also especially common in Europe (e.g. Germany, UK).

This game involves the showing and then shuffling of three cards (e.g. 2 black, 1 red). You have to guess which card is the odd one out. Guess correctly and you double your money.

The scam is perpetrated by a group of scammers. There is one dealer, two to three in the crowd acting as onlookers, one playing the game and one on the lookout for the police.

This game seems easy but it is impossible to win, because the dealer uses a sleight of hand trick to swap the card. If you see anyone winning, that is the accomplice. This is so as to tempt tourists into thinking that it is easy to win.

Watch out for those accomplices acting as onlookers, as they will pressure you into playing or intimidate you into staying. Some may even steal your valuables when you are distracted.

If you’re interested, here’s a video exposing how the scam is done:

Rule of thumb:

Give this set up a wide berth – it’s impossible to win

 

5. Ferry to Staten Island/Fake tickets

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Found on most tourists’ list of things to do, a trip on the iconic ferry to Staten Island is a great way to see New York’s harbour. You might find street hawkers pushing these tickets at any price. But thing is, you do not have to pay to get on board!

Besides the Staten Island ferry ticket, there are other “fake” and overpriced tickets sold by unlicensed groups.

For instance, the infamous SJQ Sightseeing tours scammers who wear dark blue vests with those words, sell new Statue of Liberty tickets for $80-100, reused Statue of Liberty tickets and even Battery Park entrance tickets for $20 when entrance is free!

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Do beware of these crooks who operate around lower Manhattan!

Rule of thumb:

Do some research before buying these tickets. E.g. is a ticket required? If so, where is the authorized outlet to buy from?

 

6. Casino theft (many variations)

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There have been reports of thieves, at female toilets in casinos, reaching over the stall and grabbing handbags/purses off the door’s hooks.

Besides outright theft, there are indirect ones where scammers prey on your inattentiveness. For instance, a scammer might purposely drop some money on the floor and ask if those are yours. Once you are distracted, the scammer’s accomplice will swoop in and steal your bucket of coins or tokens.

As for casinos with coinless machines, there are scammers who roam around trying to find machines with high credit. Next, they distract the victim, and an accomplice swoops in to cash out the machine by pressing the button to print out the redemption ticket and running away with it.

Rule of thumb:

Avoid putting yourself in the aforementioned situations and stay alert.

 

7. Can you help cash out my chips/can you help me?

This can come in many variations.

One common variation is near the casinos, where the scammer will say a sob story such as: “I was winning lots of money, but the casino accused me of card counting and threw me out. I didn’t even get a chance to cash out of my chips. I have 10k worth of it now, can I pay you $500 to help me cash it? However, for me to trust you, can you pass me your wallet so that I can exchange it back with you once you cash in those chips?”

Those are obviously fake chips but there are still tourists who fall for it.

Other variations could be for instance, claiming to be robbed and needing money for transport to the hotel/police station. Or they ask you to buy a jewellery which is obviously fake at an inflated price, etc.

Rule of thumb:

If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Never accept such kinds of propositions from a stranger.

 

8. VIP pass scam

You will find VIP passes being promoted in nearly all casinos or strip corners in Las Vegas. This pass, which may come with a free drink or expedited entry, doesn’t actually work as advertised. The free drinks which these passes entitle you to are usually limited to a certain time. Expedited entry also doesn’t work if the club is full, which defeats the purpose of the pass in the first place.

There are even fake passes being sold, so do be wary of that.

Of course, there are legitimate VIP passes, but be prepared to spend more. Also there is a risk of being rejected by the club hosts and employees who claim that these are fake. This is because the host/employee did not take a cut of the profits of the pass and so would not care. Pass your pass to the cashier instead of to them.

Rule of thumb:

Do your research to find the legitimate promoters/places to buy from.

One way is to buy it at crowded areas or where there’s a police presence, and get the promoter’s name and mobile number.

 

9. Street cards/escort cards in Las Vegas

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These cards are given out on the strip, with each card showing a prostitute on it and the price of that prostitute. Note that the fee shown on the card is for the prostitute to show up, anything else comes with extra charges.

And if you do not know, prostitution here is illegal. As such, they usually use fake pictures and aliases. Thus the person who turns up is  not going to look like the one on the card! What’s worse, because prostitution here is illegal, the person who turns up is more likely to be here to rob you, instead of engaging in any sexual activities.

Even for the real prostitutes, they are likely to rip you off and are unlikely to have gone through any health check ups.

Rule of thumb:

Don’t act on these cards but if you do, be prepared to pay out of your pocket. Or you can simply head to the legal red light district.

 

10. Free meal at a casino

You might meet an attractive stranger, who will try to hit it off with you. Once trust is established, he/she will claim that he/she has just won big at the casino, and offers to treat you at some expensive restaurant.

Should you accept, halfway through the meal, your new found friend will excuse himself/herself to the bathroom and not come back.

Rule of thumb:

Reject such offers, especially from a random stranger.

 

11. Taking photos with TV/movie characters

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You can find tons of these characters on Broadway, such as spiderman, Elsa from Frozen, Ironman, etc. If you were to take photos with them, be prepared to pay a tip, or be hounded or even attacked.

Rule of thumb:

If you must, either pay or take a photo from afar without them realizing it. Or just pay up for a cheap thrill.

 

12. Restaurant gratuity/double tip scam

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It has been reported that restaurants at Times Square have been charging customers double the tip, by adding an additional gratuity on the bill.

For those who are lucky, you might get a waiter who tells you that you don’t have to leave a tip at the end.

Rule of thumb:

Go through your restaurant bill carefully. Do some online research or check with your hotel staff on the reputable places to eat at.

 

13. Shake my hand and buy my item to let go

As the title suggests, there have been reports (e.g. at Union Square) of a guy coming up to you to shake your hand while holding a box of candies.

Once you fall for it, he is not going to let go until you pay an inflated price for the box of candies he is holding.

Rule of thumb:

Spot these scammers from afar and reject when approached

 

14. Fake monks

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Fake monks are a global enterprise, you can find them everywhere around the world (e.g. Australia, Hong Kong).

These scammers, dressed in orange robes, go around tourist attractions. They offer golden medallions and greetings of peace in exchange for donations to help some temple which they are from. If you refuse, they will turn aggressive and hound you, or snatch the medallion back as a last resort.

But that’s not all, if you’re unlucky, the fake monk might not be the only one hounding you.

Rule of thumb:

Spot these scammers from afar and reject when approached

 

15. Fake Las Vegas sign photographers

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At the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, you will find many official-looking photographers ready to help you take a photo.

Note that there are no such official jobs around and these scammers will help you a photo first and then hound you for a tip.

Rule of thumb:

Just ask a fellow tourist to help you take a photo.

 

16. Fake charity peddlers

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There have been many reports of scammers claiming to represent some charity at the Times Square in New York.

For instance, they may claim to represent homeless people working for the Time Square news. Or that they are helping people living in poverty in Africa. And maybe even that they are saving endangered animals from extinction etc. To sound even more convincing, they come armed with fanciful brochures and postures.

Once you are hooked, they will ask you to sign on a form and to make a donation.

Rule of thumb:

If you really want to donate, go online, search for legitimate, registered organizations and donate to them instead.

 

17. “Free” comedy show scam

In New York, there have also been reports of this scam, where scammers hand out free comedy club (e.g. Broadway Comedy Club) entrance tickets. They claim that famous comedians such as David Letterman or Jimmy Falon have previously performed at these clubs.

Should you go, what you will find is an old, rundown bar, where you will be forced to buy two drinks at the minimum. You should still count yourself lucky. This is because the unluckier ones might even have been scammed into paying for the “free” ticket and lied to that the drinks are free!

Rule of thumb:

Again, do some research online or check with your hotel staff on the legitimate comedy clubs to go and the authorized dealers to buy from.

 

18. Slot machines at Las Vegas McCarran International airport

This is not technically a scam but more of a tourist trap.

However, it should not come as a surprise that the slot machines and video poker machines here have a lousier rate of return! It has been reported that these machines only return roughly 85%, compared to the 92% at the casinos in town.

Rule of thumb:

Avoid playing here.

 

B. TRANSPORTATION

1. Overcharging/fake airport taxis

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Like many other countries globally (e.g. Philippines, Mexico), beware of drivers soliciting for customers away from the official queues. They will usually charge a higher fixed price, or might have a crooked meter. Either way, you have to be prepared to spend more, unless you know the market price and can negotiate with the driver a fixed fee before the trip.

It can be worse though, if the driver is a fake taxi driver! He will probably drive you somewhere deserted and demand a huge fee, or simply rob you of your valuables.

Rule of thumb:

Stick to the official taxi queue or use Uber.

If you are rushing for time, make sure that the cab’s number and company are visible on the outside. For long routes, have a rough price and route in mind. You could check with your hotel staff or do some online research to find this out.

 

2. The runaway taxi driver

There have been reports of taxi drivers coming out of the cab to help you with your luggage in the boot. However, they miss out one or two small bags intentionally and then quickly drive off with them before you realize.

Cities where this scam has been reported: Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Nevada, Maryland, New Orlenas, Baltimore, Louisiana, etc

Rule of thumb:

Before getting into a cab, take note of the driver’s name, car plate number and the taxi company. When alighting, be sure to account for all your luggage in the boot, especially if the driver seems to be in a rush.

 

3. The “longhauling” taxi driver

As the name suggests, the long-haul cab driver takes you on a longer route than required to earn more fare off you. This is an prevalent practice especially by the Nellis and Desert cab drivers in Las Vegas. This is because the distance between the airport and the strip is pretty short, so the driver brings you along a longer route to earn extra fare.

These cab drivers are smart. They test you by asking if this is the first time you have been to Vegas. If you say yes, you will find yourself heading down South through a tunnel which can add up to $10 to the fare.

Rule of thumb:

Say this is not the first time you are in Vegas and to go by the Swenson and Tropicana way. If the driver refuses,  you can refuse to pay and threaten to report him to the Nevada Taxicab Authority’s 24 hotline at 702-668-4005

 

4. Taxi driver’s advice

In Las Vegas especially, do be wary of your cab driver’s advice. Some will advise you that the place you are not going is not good/over-commercialized/over hyped and that as a local, he knows of a better place. Most likely that place is an establishment he gets kickbacks from. This is a common scam around the world (e.g. Morocco, India).

Also, if you are travelling as a single man, shady cab drivers will invariably recommend a massage parlour or strip-joint to check out. Avoid at all costs as these are likely unregulatesmad and you might be at the mercy of shady criminals.

Rule of thumb:

Take cab drivers’ advice with a big pinch of salt.

 

5. Taxi “arranger”

There have been reports in Miami some years back where scammers at long taxi queues would claim to help you get a cab for $20 which will go towards your fare.

This is obviously a scam yet there are some tourists who do still fall for it.

Rule of thumb:

Ignore these offers.

 

 6. Pedicab

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The pedicab is just like the cyclos in Vietnam and tuk tuks in Thailand. They are a scam waiting to happen, a scourge of the road. Their pricing system is tricky (think hidden charges in extremely small font) and complicated. As such, you won’t know the final price till the end of your journey, which will be much more than what you initially expect.

This exists as legally, they can charge whatever they want. As long as it is stated on the card they show to you.

Rule of thumb:

Avoid at all costs.

 

7. Subway theft – pickpocket/razor slits

There have been reports of criminals using a razor knife to cut through your bag to steal valuables.

Rule of thumb:

Carry your bag in front of you if in a crowded subway and stay alert. Keep valuables secure, and keep most of them locked in your hotel’s safe. Carry a photocopy of your passport/ID around instead of the actual thing.

Also, you could consider getting a slash proof bag, a money belt, or a spare wallet.

 

C. MISC

1. Crocked ATMs/Card skimming

Card skimmers can record your card details, your PIN code and send all these information wirelessly (text message/Bluetooth). It’s a real threat to be aware of!

Some telltale signs are a glue residue around card reader, loose parts of the machine or if some suspicious items are placed on the machine which could be used to house a camera. Also, if you see something protruding or not fixed tightly, that should be a clear signal to use another ATM.

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Also, there have even reports of robbery at these machines, so do stay on the lookout.

Rule of thumb:

If possible, try to only use ATM machines inside banks and in the day. Also, avoid those in dark streets and at tourist attractions.

Finally, watch out for suspicious looking characters lurking in the area.

 

2. Public WIFI cyber thief

There have been many reports where users of free WIFI in public places have had their data/identity stolen.

Rule of thumb:

Use hard-wired connection instead of public WIFI. If you really must use public WIFI, avoid logging into personal accounts such as emails or bank accounts. Also,

  • Verify the network name (some hackers set up working WIFIs with similar names to the bar/place you are at to use their WIFI, where they can track your data)
  • Only visit the site if it has https:// in the link address, as this means that the communication between your computer and the network is encrypted and can’t be read by a third party
  • For those willing to pay for security, use a VPN service. The VPN acts as a physical barrier between your computer the web, and it will encrypt your communication before sending ito the web
  • However, note that even encrypted information can be decoded, so be wary of what sites you use/what information you enter

 

3. Room service

Room service charges are usually charged to the credit card on file with the hotel. If the staff demands cash when delivering your food, double check with the reception.

Rule of thumb:

Double check with the front desk if asked to pay cash upfront for room service.

 

4. Fake front desk phone calls

There have been many reports of this in Georgia (and also all around the country).

Scammers use smuggled phones acting as fake front desk personnel, calling guests in the wee hours to request for credit card information. They claim that the hotel’s computer system has crashed or that there is an error with the number, and a number of sleepy guests do get caught off guard.

Another convincing variation is that the scammer is calling just to verify your card details on record. He will provide the last 4 digits of your card, which are obviously wrong. When you point out the error, he will act confused and ask you to tell him the entire number of your card.

Rule of thumb:

Do not provide your credit card details over the phone no matter the occasion. Cut the phone and check with the front desk if in doubt.

 

5. Beggars with babies

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It was reported in 2014 that there was a group of women who spent long hours out on the streets begging, using babies/toddlers with signs claiming that they are jobless and hungry. They would work in shifts, trading the babies/toddlers to the next women on the shift.

Rule of thumb:

Ignore them (they could easily get government services but chose not, as they prefer cash) to discourage such actions.

 

6. Selling free newspapers

Could you imagine, people selling free newspapers just to earn a penny in New York City?

It does exist, and some even tell you outright that is a free newspaper. However, they hope you can tip them for their service, which they claim will go towards some charity or non-profit organization. This is a lie.

Rule of thumb:

Avoid and reject.

 

7. Candy boys

You will find these candy boys on the New York Subway. They will approach you to buy some chocolate/candies, and claim that they are fundraising for their basketball team/charity. They will even show you papers/photos of their team, and how they just need that bit more money to get gear for themselves, and try to evoke your sympathies.

What really happens is that these boys will be passing a cut of the proceeds to a neighbourhood wholesaler rather than any basketball team/charity.

Rule of thumb:

It’s up to you to choose whether you would like to buy these. After all, if the price is right, why not?

 

8. Metrocard scam

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There have been reports where people pick up abandoned cards usually with little value left in them and resell them for a higher price, while claiming that it is actually a “discounted” price. In fact, it was reported that a homeless man made over $20,000 just from reselling these cards.

Note that it is illegal for anyone besides the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to sell these cards.

Rule of thumb:

Only buy your transportation cards from the authorized MTA dealers

 

9. Smash and grab

There have been reports of scammers hiding in street corners where there are long red lights. They wait for rental cars and once they spot a potential target, they will look inside to see if you have anything in the back seats.

If you have, they would smash your back windows, grab your stuff and then escape. Fortunately, this is not as common as in places like Brazil or Malaysia, but it is still one to watch out for.

Rule of thumb:

Be careful around tourist areas and the business districts in Hawaii. If you have valuables or bags, try to conceal them or put them in difficult to reach areas in your car.

 

10. Timeshare scams

How it works over here is that you will find well dressed salespeople offering you free/discounted tickets to tourist attractions. However, the catch is that you have to attend a timeshare sales pitch.

What happens next is that you will be subject to high pressure sales techniques over the next two hours either make a full purchase or sign up for a paid trial.

Rule of thumb:

Do not bother partaking in timeshare sessions. The timeshare apartment is likely a poor investment. Plus you will almost never get the free gift due to the onerous terms and conditions. Or you might even have to pay to receive the “free” gift.

 

11. White van speaker scam

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This is a really old scam that still exists (also in Canada) which targets both locals and tourists.

The scammers, working in groups of 3, will wear a company uniform and drive their van around. They would approach you and explain that due to some corporate error (e.g. over-order by client; system error, etc), they are now left with many speakers which they need to clear soon. As such, they are able to offer you at lower than retail prices if you are interested to buy.

Should you reject the offer, that’s when the high pressure sales tactics will come in. They will bombard you with fancy looking marketing collateral, technical jargon, hound you if you try to leave and finally, lower the price significantly.

Note that it is not just speakers which can be sold, anything else can be sold too.

Rule of thumb:

Reject such offers – these are poor quality speakers/items.

 

12. Watch my place at the bar scam

This is a very simple yet ingenious scam. A girl might chat you up at the bar, and then leave her bag there and ask you to help look after it, as she goes get a drink/to the toilet.

She heads over to the bartender, orders a drink and then calls/waves at you. Should you wave back, you have just acknowledged to the bartender to put the drink on your tab.

Rule of thumb:

It’s alright to meet new people in the bar, just be wary of such situations.

 

13. Victim turned robber scam

This can turn out in many variations. For instance, the scammer might approach you in a dark street and ask for help as he has just been robbed. Should you take your wallet out, the scammer’s accomplices will appear out of nowhere and snatch it away.

Besides a wallet, it can be anything, such as needing a phone to make emergency calls as the scammer’s phone has just been stolen. Or simply asking what time it is and requesting you to check your phone, etc.

Rule of thumb:

Whenever you hear a “sob story”, walk off.

 

14. The bump, drop and spoil scam

Similar to the earlier scam, this can occur in many variations. One is where the scammer will knock into you and drop a pair of broken glasses, then claiming that you have broken it.

They usually do this in a crowded place as it is easier to execute. Further, it is also easier to intimidate you by claiming loudly with an accusatory tone that you have broken the item.

Rule of thumb:

When caught in such a situation, ignore and walk off. Or you could accuse the other guy of bumping into you and threaten to call the police to mediate. That usually solves the problem.

 

15. Italian suit scam

This is one that also happens in Italy and it goes like this.

A scammer will happen to be lost and approach you for directions to the airport, as he is flying back to Italy. Should you help him, he will thank you, make some small chat and then offer you some suits at a low price.

He claims to have too many of these and he would like you to have it as appreciation for your help. If you accept it, this also helps him as it is a great hassle to bring all these back home.

Rule of thumb:

These suits are mere thrift store stuff and not worth the few hundreds the scammer will ask for. Firmly reject.

 

16. “Dynamic” prices at hotdog/food carts

Beware of those food carts on the street which do not post their prices.

Often times, they price discriminate and charge tourists/foreigners a higher price. If you smell something amiss at the price they offer, simply walk away and the price offered will immediately drop.

Rule of thumb:

Buy from stalls with the price displayed or simply walk away if charged an exorbitant price.

 

17. Hidden “resort fees” at hotels

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For many hotels along the Las Vegas strip and even some in New York, they charge customers a “resort fees” in addition to the advertised room rate. The advertised room rates tend to be a low one to pull in unknowing tourists. By the time you realize, it will probably be too late to back out.

Some of these hotels further benefit by separating this resort fee revenue from the normal revenue and not pay tax on the former.

Rule of thumb:

Do your research online to find the reputable places to stay.

Here’s a list of hotels which charge and also those which don’t. However, as we don’t have control over that site, do double check in case that page is not updated.

If you were asked to pay, here are three steps to avoid paying that charge.

 

D. GETTING HELP

1. Emergency numbers to call

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  • All emergencies: 911

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1 Comment

  1. I was walking towards battery park to get the ticket to the statue of liberty. There was those people with blue coat. They asked me where we were going. I said it we are going to battery park to get the ticket to statue of liberty. She said the line is so long. I have to wait 3 hours just to get the ticket and 3 hours for the boat and she said for kids they require birth certificate to get the ticket. It sounded very odd to me and I told them that that was not true because I have been there before and we didn’t need them. The lady said rules has changed. I actually believed them. I asked her so if I take this tour will I be able to see the statue of liberty and Ellis Island. She said no. The boat will stop so that you can take a picture but you won’t be able to get in the island. After asking the price which was almost 200$+ for one kid and two adult. I told her we will go wait in the line for 3 hours and if they ask for birth certificate we won’t go. We went to battery park to get the ticket there was not even a long line. We asked the trooper if we need a birth certificate he said it was not needed. The total was 37$ to get the ticket for 3. Once we got our ticket after 30 minutes we were on our way to liberty island. I still can’t believe I was almost scammed.

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