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After a string of gay bar thefts, what can clubgoers and bar patrons do to protect themselves?

Turning off facial recognition technology, keeping an eye on your cocktail and “situational awareness” are among safety experts’ top recommendations.
Photo illustration of people dancing at a nightclub, a mans face in shadow, and a mixed drink being poured.
NBC News; Getty Images

Following a string of incidents at New York City gay bars where incapacitated men had money stolen from their bank accounts with the help of facial recognition technology, safety experts are recommending a multi-pronged approach for those seeking a fun and safe night out. 

Calls for vigilance were reignited last week when the New York City Police Department confirmed that three men who had visited The Eagle NYC, a gay leather bar, in the fall were incapacitated and then had thousands of dollars stolen from their online financial accounts by criminals who accessed the victims’ smartphones using facial recognition technology. These incidents were similar to the circumstances surrounding the deaths of two men in the spring, Julio Ramirez and John Umberger, who were last seen at gay bars in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood on the evenings they died. 

In the wake of these incidents, public safety experts have advised patrons of the city’s LGBTQ nightlife spaces to avoid using facial recognition technology on their smartphones and to take several other steps to ensure a fun night out doesn’t result in a dangerous situation, especially incapacitation.

Brian Downey, an NYPD detective and the president of the Gay Officers Action League, or GOAL, said the ideal solution “is not getting in that position to begin with.” 

Gay bars and nightclubs have long served as de facto community centers for queer people, especially in New York, which has the nation’s largest population of LGBTQ people. This rich history, and the long-held idea of gay bars as safe spaces, has led many patrons of these venues to believe in the inherent good nature of those around them, Downey said. However, he cautioned that queer New Yorkers must avoid letting their guards down and maintain situational awareness, even within these historically safe spaces. 

“Our community should be aware at all times that no matter what community you’re going to be a part of, no matter what age cohort you’re in, there are always going to be people who absolutely do not have good intentions,” Downey said. “There are people who perceive our community as weak, our community as folks who can be preyed upon, and they will use that to their advantage.”

In addition to these incidents, the NYPD has confirmed that it is investigating similar crimes that have victimized bar patrons who do not identify as LGBTQ or were visiting venues that are not queer-affiliated. Authorities have also not publicly commented on whether the victims were drugged on the evenings they were victimized. However, three victims of such crimes, including one of The Eagle NYC victims, and family members of three other victims, including Ramirez and Umberger, previously told NBC News they strongly suspect druggings occurred before the thefts. 

To avoid being drugged or consuming unsafe substances that can lead to illness or incapacitation, experts shared some prevention methods that officials have been advising for decades: Watch your drink being prepared, do not leave your drink unattended and do not accept drinks or drugs from strangers. 

Joseph Palamar, an epidemiologist and associate professor of population health at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, has spent decades studying drug use in New York City’s nightlife scene. He warned that drinks left unattended can easily be spiked with powdered opioids or gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB), which can be difficult to detect or taste.

Even if equipped with fentanyl test strips, which are small strips of paper that can detect the presence of the deadly opioid in other substances, Palamar acknowledged that most people are probably not testing their drinks or drugs while they’re out partying. He said it would be more advisable to simply refrain from accepting drinks and drugs from strangers.

“It would be a little awkward testing the person’s drugs in front of them, and I think it would ruin the intimacy of the moment,” Palamar said. “I mean picture it: You’re trying to kiss somebody in a stall and, ‘Oh, hold on! Let me test this bump before you give it to me.’ It’ll be insulting, and there goes the hookup.”

Clubgoers and bar patrons who engage in one-on-one activities with strangers are most vulnerable, he added.

“When you’re off dancing with somebody or kissing somebody or you go to the bathroom with someone to do a bump or to have sex or to do whatever, that is when the risk is much higher to be drugged,” Palamar said. “You can do your thing and run around and hook up, but you need a friend around to notice if you begin acting out of the ordinary.”

Palamar also acknowledged that some clubgoers might go out by themselves, sometimes with the intention of meeting strangers to hook up with. In those scenarios, he and other experts advised making friends or family members aware of your whereabouts before going out.

For those going out solo, Darlene Torres, the director of client services at LGBTQ advocacy group NYC Anti-Violence Project, recommended sharing their phone’s location data — a feature available on most smartphones — with friends or family members. She also recommended they set up check-ins throughout the evening with their loved ones and create a plan should their loved ones not hear from them on evenings they’re going out alone. 

“We can’t control people,” Torres said. “We can only really try to give as many tools and safety plans — plan A, plan B, plan C — and to make sure folks have those plans laid out for them before they go out for the night.”

The NYPD has not made any arrests in connection with the incidents at The Eagle NYC or in the cases of Ramirez and Umberger, though the department confirmed all of these incidents are still being investigated. But Downey cautioned that even when those responsible for these victimizations are brought to justice, LGBTQ New Yorkers must continue to be vigilant and practice common nightlife safety measures. 

“I would never say, ‘Don’t go out,’ because if we don’t go out, we’re sending a message to people that we’re afraid of them and that we’re not strong enough to come together against these bad actors,” Downey said. “Instead of hiding, what needs to just be increased is our level of situational awareness — and it’s not a time to be complacent.”