Three Cup Shuffle Scam on Muni


Photo by Flickr user photine

Muni rider Adam saw a group of people scamming Muni passengers on the 24 recently with the infamous “three cup shuffle” scam. I’ve heard about this scam being carried out on tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf and in some other tourist-heavy cities, but Adam’s description of what happened seems more threatening:

Today a friend witnessed a group of people gambling/scaming passengers on Muni. One guy would do the ‘which cup is the bottlecap under’ and bug nearby passengers about money, while flashing cash. A nearby passenger refused to pay attention so two other guys came up and threatened the guy into giving up his cash on hand. This was on a 24-inbound. They jumped off in the Haight. Not 10 minutes later another friend texts me that this same group of guys (whom he sees all the time) are on the 71-inbound doing the same thing. They intimidated a guy out of $40.

Adam said he called 311 and was transferred to SFPD, who then transferred him back to Muni. Adam also reports that the 311 operator would not take an anonymous report, but on the 311 site I found that you can indeed file an anonymous report about Muni.

Our own Jeff Hunt and Tara Ramroop said they have also seen this scam, on the F:

The game involves three little cups, a marble, and a flat surface. The cups are mixed around, only one containing the marble, and the participants guess which cup has the marble. One guy sat down with the board, facing across the middle aisle to a couple of female tourists. One of his (obvious) cohorts sat a few rows back, and on the other side. Another cohort was closer to the back door of the F, perhaps setting himself up as the lookout.

When guy with the board couldn’t drum up much interest, his cohort egged people on, making it seem like he was just a spectator. He pretended to “play,” and that got the tourists’ interest. After a few “feel good” rounds of letting the tourists win, it was on to the real money. Bets were up for $1 to $20 and more. After a few wins, a loss is hard to swallow. So the tourists go in even further, and now they’re out something like $100. It all happens really fast, but ends in slow motion. All three men get up and off the streetcar at the same stop. Ten seconds later, the tourists realize what happened.

We dialed our criminal defense lawyer friends, who said that this is almost certainly illegal, violating Article 3 of San Francisco’s Municipal Code. Specifically, section 227. The scammers are also probably in violation of the California Penal Code, which calls  this scam “three card monte.”1

Threatening the passengers for money probably also violates a couple of laws, including disorderly conduct, we were told. Have you seen what Adam or Jeff and Tara described on Muni?

1 California Penal Code Section 332 provides:
(a) Every person who by the game of “three card monte,” so-called, or any other game, device, sleight of hand, pretensions to fortune telling, trick, or other means whatever, by use of cards or other implements or instruments, or while betting on sides or hands of any play or game, fraudulently obtains from another person money or property of any description, shall be punished as in the case of larceny of property of like value for the first offense, except that the fine may not exceed more than five thousand dollars ($5,000). A second offense of this section is punishable, as in the case of larceny, except that the fine shall not exceed ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or both imprisonment and fine.
(b) For the purposes of this section, “fraudulently obtains” includes, but is not limited to, cheating, including, for example, gaining an unfair advantage for any player in any game through a technique or device not sanctioned by the rules of the game.



  1. Erik

    Anyone who falls for this deserves to lose their $100.

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    • jeff

      Yeah, I had a similar feeling watching it unfold near me. But Adam’s story of their use of threats and intimidation takes it a different level, in my mind. One of the three I saw, the one who sat and feigned interest in the game, was a totally huge guy who could easily scare people into coughing up some dough.

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    • Tara

      I’m inclined to agree with Erik, but it definitely doesn’t make angels out of these hustlers.

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  2. J

    I saw exactly the same thing with these guys on the 38. The one with the board sat right in the middle of the bus where the two sections joined and across from him sat a kid who looked like a high school student who fell for the scam. The two looks outs stood by each door, one of them often came to the borad and “played” a hand to entice the kid to keep playing. I saw money exchanging hands and all told it looked like the kid got cleaned out. Then all of the sudden the one with the cups and board got off the next stop while the watchmen stayed by the doors on guard until the got off the next stop. I imagine that was to guard against the victim from going after the money maker.

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  3. Van

    I’ve seen the exact same thing as the latter story on the F. They took $200 of a young Asian female (a teenager I think). There was the whole elaborate setup of the guy a few rows back pretending to not be connected. When another passenger became fed up with them he warned passengers that they were crooks, which led to him being chased off the bus by the guys and being threatened severe bodily harm.

    It’s crazy, and I sort of agree with the first commenter but at the same time they are really intimidating that it’s almost like armed robbery of some sort.

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  4. Erik

    If they are intimidating people into giving them money then they are mugging, not scamming.

    I wonder if running this game with a plants in the audience is literally the oldest trick in the book.

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  5. pandaKrusher

    These guys have been on the 71 for years. I try to sit next to them on the outbound so I can watch. I have a feeling the marks say they were “intimidated” because they’re embarrassed they fell for the scam. They target young Asians and tourists and have about a 15% success rate, in my estimation.

    Different game, same scam:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtEbtQwpwMw

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  6. Shibi

    A group runs the Three Card Monte scam on the 71 a lot (outbound, from say… Civic Center or thereabouts to Haight and Fillmore). Last week we watched them (guy with the board + 2 cohorts) scam a few tourists and I think a couple of “locals.” After the Montes jumped ship at Fillmore, one of the “local” guys confessed to losing $25 to the Montes. The entire back of the bus erupted into: YOU’LL NEVER WIN AT THAT SCAM ~ YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THEY’RE GONNA TAKE YOUR MONEY ~ THE OTHER GUYS WERE WITH THE MAIN MONTE!! I guess it takes a bus to learn a lesson. Too bad Epic Beard Man wasn’t present.

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  7. Anne Hyatt

    I’ve watched this on the muni for 30 years. If you are scared of the big guy get up and move. I am a 5’2′ 61 year old woman. They never scared me. The gullibility of people who got scammed does.

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  8. Belgand

    This seems fairly easily dealt with. For one you should have the police non-emergency phone number for your local station in your phone already. It’s frequently useful and exactly the sort of thing that, while you might not use it often, you want to have on hand for when you do. Far better than trying to dick around with 311.

    Looking over the Muni website just now though it looks like what they really want you to do is call a Muni Crime Hotline at 415-671-3181. Nice to know that the bureaucracy keeps passing the buck. Anyhow, move to another part of the bus and call letting them know the bus line, the bus number (should be 4 digits and I believe it’s up front), where you currently are and where you’re going. You could try telling the driver, but I can only imagine two possible scenarios: they don’t care and do nothing or they try ineffectually just shout at them to stop rather than calling the police and having them arrested.

    It might take a bit of time, but I’ve heard of these guys (assuming it’s the same ones) being active for a number of years now. Just keep at it and eventually we can catch them and hopefully do something about it. Three Card Monte has been described as little more than a polite way of mugging someone and in this case it seems they’ve decided that they often can’t even be bothered to maintain that fiction.

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    • Eugenia

      That’s a good idea about having the police non emergency phone number in your cell. I gotta get on that.

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    • Jessica F

      I called the SFPD the other day about this scheme and the dispatcher said it was a MUNI problem, not a crime that needed to be reported. MUNI said SFPD needed to take a report of this. No one wants to deal with it. Ridiculous.

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  9. Alex

    For all the talk about how awful the scammers/thugs are, what about the SFPD and 311? Assuming the caller was telling the truth, if riders were complaining about being harassed or intimidated, SFPD should have intervened *not* transferred the caller to 311. Further, 311 does allow you to make anonymous complaints about pretty much anything. Every time I’ve called they *ask* whether or not I want to give my contact information out. If I say yes, the 311 operator launches into their big privacy disclaimer.

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  10. Tommy

    I’ve seen this happen a million times. Most times this is out and out strong arm robbery. SFPD really needs to start getting undercovers on the 71 (this is where I see it most frequently) and other lines where this is going down.

    These guys prey on the weak taking total advantage of people that aren’t as street savvy as them then use intimidation to get off the bus and onto their next victims. Sometimes they resort to flat out robbery if you don’t fall into their trap.

    They need to be put UNDER the jail if caught, no probation or any bullshit that lets them walk. These guys are CAREER CRIMINALS who will keep doing shit like this until they’re in jail for life or a very very long time.

    Most of the guys I see doing this are in their 40’s or 50’s. Very little chance of rehabilitation for this type of lifelong criminal.

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  11. generic

    I must confess a certain… fondness? for these guys every time I see them.

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  12. kel

    Yeah, generic,I totally have a soft spot for people who take advantage of others who are just minding their own business on public transportation instead of getting an actual job like everyone else. Really pulls at the old heart strings. Insert my eye rolling here.

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  13. Anna

    Saw this same thing on the 38 Geary Inbound around 3-4pm. They moved from the front of the bus to the middle and finally in the back. I don’t remember where / when the person got on but the only thing going on through my head was…”wtf?” As an a local Asian teenager, I couldn’t help but be defensive and knew it was related to a scam. I didn’t see these “lookouts” though. As previous posts stated, they target foreigners and Asian women who don’t know what the heck they’re saying.

    They started off saying it’s just all fun and games and that there’s nothing to lose. But next thing I knew, the scammer convinced the victims to throw a few dollars in. Once the scammer got what he wanted he moved on to the rest of the bus.

    While I was getting off, a large African American man threatened the scammer and warned him about scamming. He basically told the scammer off to which the scammer counterattacked with lies of fun and game.

    The scammer had wads of cash with him, so obviously it wasn’t his first time.

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  14. Joe

    It even happens at some BART stations, like Coliseum. They probably figure there are gullible tourists coming in from OAK. Best thing seems to be to move away if scammers are coming near.

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  15. Cal

    Yes! It actually happened to the group of people I was with. Collectively they ended up losing $120. This was back in 2010. I was just telling a friend about, which is why I came across this website.

    Overall- just an unfortunate experience that tainted our trip. But.. it makes a good party story.

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