New York City officials are advising patrons of Hell’s Kitchen’s gay bars and clubs to switch off the facial recognition software on their phones as a security measure in response to the deaths of Julio Ramirez and John Umberger and the recent druggings and robberies of others.
Ramirez and Umberger were both found dead of overdoses after nights out at Hell’s Kitchen gay venues, and were discovered to have been electronically robbed of thousands of dollars at the time of their deaths.
In a Mayor’s Office of Nightlife “Niteschool” training webinar last week, hosted by NYC nightlife tzar Ariel Palitz and Council Member Erik Bottcher, patrons were advised to go “old school” and switch off their smartphone’s Face ID to protect their bank accounts in case they were drugged while out.
More News on the Deaths of Julio Ramirez and John Umberger
The session laid out basic nightlife advice from the City’s Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes and the Anti-Violence Project. It included tips to keep in touch with friends, know your limits and trust your instincts, that had first been shared by Palitz and Bottcher at a press conference in June last year at The Spot in response to the death of Ramirez.
But there was new advice to people who go out regularly to bars to “use a passcode and not Face ID to protect your phone and data.” The concept was presented at the webinar by Aditi Bhattacharya from the Anti-Violence Project, who said that a numerical passcode is safer than Face ID. Bhattacharya recommended: ”Using old-school techniques and making sure your passcode is not a whole host of zeros or 12345, but something more personalized to you. Make sure you use that over Face ID, because evidently, it is easier for someone to use. They can scan your face without your consent and when you are not aware. That would open you up to more tech violence.” The advice for venue owners to hand out and display can be found at avp.org/bar-safety/
Palitz, whose official title is Senior Executive Director — NYC Office of Nightlife, said: “It’s up to us to stay vigilant and to be aware of our surroundings and to be conscious at all times. So we encourage you to be a harder target by taking some of these preventive measures and to keep yourself safe.”
CM Bottcher introduced the tips and tools for patrons by saying: “Julio Ramirez and John Umberger were both found dead after leaving nightlife venues in the Hell’s Kitchen. We are still awaiting news on that investigation — and while the authorities assure us that they are actively investigating this and that they have all the resources assigned to bring the people responsible to justice, we want to make sure that everyone has the information, knows all the tips and has all the tools to keep themselves safe when going out and enjoying New York.”
On Friday, NBC Out reported that three patrons of The Eagle NYC gay club in Chelsea had been incapacitated and robbed of thousands via facial recognition on their phones. During an interview on NBC4, reporter Matt Levietes said NYPD had confirmed that “criminals were luring patrons out of the bars and into their cars by offering them narcotics or invites to after parties. From there, victims are knocked out. Criminals then use their incapacitated faces to bring to their phones and steal their cash.” Police confirmed to the reporter that the newer cases were not related to the deaths of Ramirez and Umberger.
In January, CM Bottcher reposted on Instagram a video posted by The Eagle NYC of at least two men interacting with bar patrons outside the venue, writing: “I spoke to the captain on the 10th Precinct about this and he informed me that they sent detectives over there right away”
The video from the Eagle was taken down by the bar for reasons unknown. Their original post on Sunday, January 9 said: “Please steer clear of the two guys standing in front of or around The Eagle offering narcotics or invites to parties. And as a word of caution, if approached by any unknown person, please return to the bar and await your transportation. We have reported the known offenders to the appropriate authorities.”
In July 2022, three months after Ramirez’s death, W42ST requested that local officials be given the opportunity to see video footage of three men leaving the Ritz Bar & Lounge with Julio. To date, this video has not been seen other than by police and senior management at The Ritz.
Meanwhile, the Face ID or passcode security debate rages on. Although switching off Face ID is the best option when a person is drugged, passcodes have their own issues (especially in a crowded environment) of “shoulder surfing” and “password guessing”. Mac security blog Intego recently reported on the issue with a post — “Which Is More Secure: Face ID, Touch ID, or a Passcode?” Face ID got a 9/10 rating and passcodes were scored 5/10 if a four-digit code was used and 7/10 for a six-digit code.
W42ST asked local elected officials whether they would be adhering to the advice, and what they thought about the investigation into the deaths of Ramirez and Umberger.
Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal supported the idea of switching from Face ID to passcode on a night out, saying: “If I go out for a night of clubbing, I would indeed” adding that it was important that everyone should switch on two-factor authentication (2FA) for their banking “as banks have not been treating these incidents as fraud”. Hoylman-Sigal had been contacted by one constituent who had “tens of thousands of dollars withdrawn from his account.” The constituent was drugged and robbed after a night at a local gay bar.
“It’s worrying that it’s LGBTQ bars being targeted, and there’s a pattern. I’m confounded that over six months ago when we held the vigil for Julio we were told that police were on the verge of making an announcement on the case,” said Hoylman-Sigal. “Since then there have been more of these kidnappings — and let’s be clear these are kidnappings — and robberies.”
He added, “One bar owner told me their security guard had to pull patrons out of a van and get them back into the venue on several occasions. With so many videos, photos and even license plates, you have to ask why is this taking so long. Especially with so much evidentiary material floating around. I hope that the highest level of NYPD has engaged in this investigation.”
Assembly Member Tony Simone told us that he will be taking these extra steps when enjoying our local nightlife, including switching off Face ID on his phone. “After the local deaths of Julio Ramirez and John Umberger, combined with increased threats against the LGBTQ community nationwide, I urge everyone to join me in taking steps to protects ourselves, our communities and and our belongings,” said Simone. “Our LGBTQ nightlife is to be cherished fully and experienced safely by all in our community. LGBTQ spaces have always been safest when we look out for each other, before anything else, it is us who keeps us safe. By taking the steps advocated by the Anti-Violence Project and standing vigilant for each other, we can avoid further tragedies.”
Last night, we spoke to Umberger’s mother, Linda Clary. She said: “It is troubling on all counts. John and Julio’s and countless others killers are still out there. This isn’t about money and stealing money. It’s about stealing someone’s security and that is not OK. It’s about living free and living safe. No arrests have been made in John and Julio’s cases and other cases. There has to be more than just changing how we approach our phones.”
W42ST contacted local bar owners yesterday to see if they will post notices or handout this advice to their patrons, suggesting they switch off their Face ID when entering their bars. As of this morning, we had not had a response — but will update this story when we hear back.
What do you think of this advice? How do you think Hell’s Kitchen bar patrons could be safer? Please comment below…