Parking lot impostors prey on tourists in S.F.

While paying for parking in San Francisco may often seem like a rip-off, for some who parked their vehicles in pay lots near the Embarcadero and Fisherman’s Wharf, it really was.

Unattended lots with self-pay parking machines were the playground of several enterprising, but apparently careless crooks who conned unsuspecting drivers into paying them instead of the parking lot owner.

On Tuesday, one such crook pled guilty to hustling drivers four times in two different parking lots in April. James Houston received 16 months in prison on charges of felony theft after he was busted twice — in the same lot on the same day for scamming drivers.

Houston apparently donned slacks, a tie and a windbreaker, procured some old parking stubs and approached drivers pulling into the lot, telling them he would take the $15 fee because the machine was broken, according to police.

Officers first busted Houston at a lot at Kearny and Bay streets on April 5, prosecutor Maxwell Peltz said Thursday.

“Essentially, he went out there a little after noon — 1:35 p.m. was the first incident — there were undercover officers at the lot conducting surveillance for auto boosters unrelated to this parking lot scam,” Peltz said. “They saw him scamming motorists and arrested him.”

“He was processed, cited and released at Central station,” Peltz said, then immediately went back to the lot and was arrested a second time by the same officers.

After being released on his own recognizance, Houston was arrested again on April 30, when he tried to pull his scam in the parking lot of the Longshoremen’s union at 400 North Point, which leases some of its parking lot to City Park, Peltz said.

“A female longshoreman saw him scamming motorists in the lot, followed him and, with the help of a nearby security guard, effected a citizens arrest,” Peltz said.

Houston pled guilty to one of four counts of felony theft, for the two scams at the Bay and Kearny lot and two scams the stevedore saw him pull at 400 North Point. Another man is in custody on allegations of similar scams in the same area, Peltz said.

“It was really difficult to get them, because by the time the officers got there, they’d be long gone. It was hard to find a victim because the victims had been scammed and just wanted to leave the area,” said Officer Kim Koltzoff, who said she has arrested the suspects previously.

Koltzoff said Houston had been working the area for years, and she had arrested Houston “numerous” times.

Most victims didn’t even know they were scammed until they were contacted by the lot owners or had their cars towed, Koltzoff said. “They had to pay twice, or their cars were towed and they got a tow fee.”

amartin@examiner.com


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