The $64,000 Fake New York City Tourist

New York City has everything — Broadway shows, two baseball teams, great public parks, a 24/7 public transportation system that actually gets you places, and cuisine from every corner of the world. There are downsides to living there, though, with cost being perhaps the biggest. The cost of living in New York City is roughly double the national average, depending on what index you go by, and a nice-looking, 800 square foot apartment can run you $5,000 a month — that’s $60k/year. And if you have $100,000 in cash lying around, you can buy yourself a parking space of your very own.

So, yeah — New York City is expensive, which is why some people find creative ways to make a few extra dollars on the side. Or in some cases, a lot of extra dollars. Even if it means you may get punched in the face by a truck driver.

Parking, as already demonstrated by that six-figure price tag above, is at a premium in New York. For truck drivers making deliveries to local businesses, that’s a particularly troubling problem. There is almost never an open parking spot for a car, let alone your huge rig. Many truck drivers “double park,” which means they park their trucks in the rightmost lane of traffic, parallel to the cars legally parked on the side of the road. (See the picture above for an example.) Double parking isn’t typically allowed in Manhattan and other parts of NYC and can result in the truck driver getting fined, but sometimes it’s worth the risk.

The solution is to double park minus the “parking” part. The driver, again, pulls parallel to the parked cars and, again, blocks a lane of traffic, but instead of turning the truck off, he or she lets it idle for a few minutes in order to make the delivery. Idling, as it turns out, is allowed so long as you don’t stay there for too long: you can legally do so for three minutes without incurring a fine (unless you are adjacent to a school, in which case you only get a one-minute grace period). 

But enforcing that three-minute window is tricky. If a traffic cop comes across a double-parked vehicle, it’s immediately clear that the car or truck is in violation of the regulations, and therefore, the officer can write a ticket. But if that same traffic cop comes across an idling vehicle, he or she has no idea how long the vehicle has been sitting there, pumping exhaust into the air. Waiting around for three minutes to write the ticket seems like a waste of the officer’s time, so the city has another solution in place: citizens can report trucks that have idled for too long — and if the driver gets a ticket, the reporting citizen gets a cut of the proceeds.

The program, called the Citizens Air Complaint Program, is outlined on the New York City website here. And as you can imagine, reporting an idling truck isn’t as easy as texting some government phone number and hoping for the best. Per the website, you need to do a little bit of spying; the city requires a “time and date stamped video” that shows the truck or bus “continuously idling” for longer than the allowed period, and that video has to show the license plate of the vehicle and capture the “clearly audible” [ . . . ] “sound of the idling engine.” And there are other requirements as well, which you can read about at that link. (The city, kindly, recommends iPhone and Android apps that add timestamps to your video recordings.) If you meet all the requirements, you can make a significant amount of money for only a few minutes of work. As CNBC reports, “the fine for a first-time offender is $350, and more for repeat offenders. A 25-percent cut β€” or $87.50 β€” is paid to the person who shot the video and filed the complaint.” 

In 2018, the first year of the program, two such truck watchers scored more than $4,000 each simply by reporting idling trucks, according to Autoblog. Last year, the number of big-time citizen surveillants grew — and so did their individual bounties. As the New York Times reported last month, there’s a small collective of “about 20 or so busy citizen reporters who collectively submit some 85 percent of the complaints to the city” who now call themselves the Idling Warriors. They’re not spies or anything like that; per the Times, “they count in their number a pediatrician, several attorneys, and a retired police detective,” most of whom are just on a morning walk to work or, ironically, to get some fresh air. And the returns can be huge: the Times spoke with 81-year-old Paul Slapikas, who said that “he pulled in $64,000 in rewards in 2021 for simply paying attention on his daily walks for exercise: ‘I would expect to get three a day without even looking.'”

But there’s a hidden cost to these endeavors. These would-be truck nabbers need to hang around the infringing vehicle for a few minutes in order to get the bounty, and that means the citizen surveillant is going to be rather conspicuous. Most people in New York don’t stand around sidewalks taking iPhone videos of idling trucks, after all. It is often easy for an infringing truck driver to notice an Idling Warrior trying to catch the driver in the act, and at times, drivers fight back. Many of the Idling Warriors that the Times spoke to had been threatened if not beaten up, with one telling the times that he was knocked to the ground and held there by a team of delivery drivers.

The solution, at least for Slapikas, is to don a disguise: he dresses “like a lost tourist, a camera dangling around his neck and a map sticking out of his jacket pocket. He appeared to be deep in conversation on an old flip-phone β€” big hand gestures, a peek at a watch, a crane of the neck like he’s looking for a friend.” But in reality, there’s no film in the camera, no one on the other side of his conversation, and no need for the map. His cell phone is hidden from plain sight, recording the idling truck. And then three minutes and a handful of seconds later, Slapikas leaves the scene unscathed — and $87.50 richer.

Bonus fact: New York’s lack of parking can cause all sorts of traffic problems beyond the scourge of double parking. According to Freakonomics, researchers did a study where they asked drivers stopped at traffic lights whether they were en route to another destination, or if they were simply circling the block in hopes of finding a parking space. According to their interviews, on some streets, more than a quarter of drivers were only on the road because they hadn’t been able to find parking yet.

From the Archives: Follow the Diamond Brick Road: Another way to scour New York City’s streets for some extra cash.