After a series of robberies at gay bars, what can clubgoers and bar patrons do to protect themselves?

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Following a series of incidents at New York City gay bars where disabled men had money stolen from their bank accounts with the help of facial recognition technology, security experts recommend a multi-pronged approach for those looking for a night out. fun and safe.

Calls for vigilance are revived 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 financial accounts by criminals online that accessed the victims’ smartphones. using facial recognition technology. These incidents were similar to the circumstances surrounding the deaths in the spring of two men, Julio Ramírez and John Umberger, who were last seen at gay bars in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan the night they died.

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

Brian Downey, an NYPD detective and president of the Gay Officers Action League, or GOAL, said the ideal solution «is to not put yourself 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 largest LGBTQ population in the country. This rich history, and the entrenched idea of ​​gay bars as safe spaces, has led many patrons of these places to believe in the inherent good nature of those around them, Downey said. However, she cautioned that gay New Yorkers should avoid letting their guard down and maintain situational awareness, even within these historically safe spaces.

“Our community needs to be aware at all times that no matter what community you are a part of, no matter what age group you are in, there will always be people who have absolutely no good intentions.” Downey said. “There are people who perceive our community as weak, our community as people who can fall prey to them, 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 patrons of the bar. who do not identify as LGBTQ or were visiting places that are not affiliated with queer. Authorities have also not publicly commented on whether the victims were drugged on the nights they were victimized. However, three victims of such crimes, including one of The Eagle NYC victims, and relatives of three other victims, including Ramirez and Umberger, previously told NBC News they strongly suspect they had taken drugs prior to the robberies.

To avoid being drugged or using harmful substances that can cause illness or disability, experts shared some prevention methods that officials have been advising for decades: Watch your drink being made, don’t leave your drink unattended, and don’t accept drinks or drugs from strangers. .

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

Even if they are equipped with fentanyl test strips, which are small paper strips that can detect the presence of the deadly opioid in other substances, Palamar acknowledged that most people probably don’t test their drinks or drugs while 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 to test the drugs of the person in front of them, and I think it would ruin the intimacy of the moment,” Palamar said. “I mean imagine it: you’re trying to kiss someone in a booth and, ‘Oh wait! Let me taste this blow before you give it to me. It will be insulting, and there goes the connection.”

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

«When you’re dancing with someone or kissing someone or going to the bathroom with someone to hit or have sex or do whatever, that’s when the risk of being high is much higher,» Palamar said. «You can do your thing and run and connect, but you need a friend around to notice if you start acting out of character.»

Palamar also acknowledged that some clubgoers may go out on their own, sometimes with the intention of meeting up with strangers to hook up with. In those scenarios, he and other experts advised informing friends or family of your whereabouts before leaving.

For those who go out alone, Darlene Torres, director of customer services for the LGBTQ advocacy group NYC Anti-Violence Project, recommended sharing your phone’s location data, a feature available on most smartphones, with friends or family. . She also recommended that they set up overnight check-ins with their loved ones and create a plan in case their loved ones don’t hear from them on nights they’re out alone.

“We can’t control the people,” Torres said. “We can really just try to give as many safety tools and plans as possible (Plan A, Plan B, Plan C) and make sure people have those plans in place 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, although the department confirmed that all of these incidents are still under investigation. But Downey cautioned that even when those responsible for these victimizations are brought to justice, LGBTQ New Yorkers must remain 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 unite against these bad actors,” Downey said. «Instead of hiding, what needs to be increased is our level of situational awareness, and this is not a time to be complacent.»

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