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Shoe-Shamers: Aggressive Scammers Trap Tourists at the Wharf 

Wednesday, Jan 4 2012
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The daily roster of Fisherman's Wharf peddlers runs the gamut: There's the Bushman, charging for scares from behind his leafy bough. There's Kenny the Clown, juggling fiery torches, often while riding a skateboard, sometimes inadvertently setting fire to his purple wig. There are the silver-and-gold-painted men who mechanically pop-and-lock when tipped.

But in recent times, a new class of huckster has appeared on the wharf on Jefferson Street. These operators don't so much "earn" tourists' tips as coerce them.

They are the shoe-shiners, and their game, as reported to police by angry victims and business owners, works like this: They approach a tourist — usually a man, usually with his wife or girlfriend so there's less chance of a fight. They say, "I bet I can tell you where you got your shoes."

"Yeah, where?" the tourist responds.

"On your feet." The scammer then bends down and spritzes the unwitting tourist's shoes with liquid from a spray bottle, and shines them with a towel. The victim stands there dumbfounded, and at the end the scammer pressures him for a hefty tip, to the tune of $10 to $20. The victims pay up, and often don't want to press charges for shame of being taken — and because nobody wants to deal with the cops on vacation.

Police say there used to be two African-American men in their 40s who performed the scam around Jefferson Street with burly guys on hand to intimidate tourists into paying up. But they stopped coming around after being cited or arrested multiple times.

Then there's Sam Chhom, a 25-year-old Asian man from Oakland, who hasn't taken the hint.

"Oh, Sam. Yeah, he's the one," says Troy Campbell, the manager of the Fisherman's Wharf Community Benefit District. Campbell says Chhom often shows up in an apron with a female companion who acts as a lookout for the cops. "You learn about the people who become issues," says Campbell. "They live in the East Bay, they're struggling. He makes money doing this, so it's hard not for him to be back."

The police have cited Chhom for peddling without a license a dozen times this year, says police spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak, including arresting him once in September on a warrant for failing to pay a previous fine. But the DA didn't file charges. "It's hard in this city to get long-term repercussions for bad behavior," says Campbell. "It's frustrating to see them continue to come back." Of course, the scam works out great for Sam.

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Lauren Smiley

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