Is 'Pokemon Go' Really Driving a Crime Wave?

Gaming app has been blamed for everything from murders and robbery to highway crashes – but what really holds up?

Credit: Richard B. Levine/Newscom/Zuma

With Pokémon Go overtaking our parks, changing how we discover dead bodies, and, well, basically infecting most of our lives, it's not surprising that there have been more than a few strange tales to come out of the real-world interactions that the game requires.

On Sunday, cops from the O'Fallon Missouri Police Department posted a warning on Facebook that there had been four individuals in a black BMW luring their victims into a parking lot by adding "a beacon" – a lure that attracts Pokémon to a location and, as a result, other players as well – "to a Pokestop"–  just one of many phrases you never thought you'd see the local police department post on Facebook. The young men had managed to rob eight or nine people, according to reports, but were quickly apprehended. Someone claiming to be one of the victims wrote into Snopes.com, the popular site that debunks urban legends, to say that the teens weren't really that clever – they didn't lure anyone in with expensive add-ons, they just happened to post up next to a "slightly out of the way Pokestop," which just happened to be in a dark alley.   

Many other early reports of crime, though – from a Chicago kid who accidentally went into a "bad neighborhood" and was stabbed and robbed, to a Florida teen who murdered his younger brother to steal his Pokémon collection – turned out to be false. These "satirical" stories, posted on the fake news site Cartel Press, were later debunked by Snopes. But, as Pablo Reyes, one of the site's administrators, claimed to the Daily Beast, they weren't just click-baiting users with incendiary headlines, they were simply testing out a new platform for the site, and accidentally published a slew of Pokémon-related stories that happened to be shared across the Internet at a rapid rate. "The stories on there went viral by accident," Reyes claimed.

And while one of those stories, about a highway pileup in Massachusetts caused by a poorly-placed Pickachu, might not have passed the Snopes test, it could be indicative of a larger problem arising from the new Pokémon phenomenon: While the game is specifically designed to get people out and walking around, brilliantly lazy Americans have figured out it's also possible to play by car. According to Internet tipsters, the game's GPS doesn't work if you're going more than 20 miles per hour, so it's best to crawl around in your car, occasionally slamming on your breaks when a Pokémon is near. While there have been no reports of serious car crashes due to Pokémon Go, several police departments have issued warnings not to Pokémon and drive.

One problem with the app's design, however, is not just the slow drivers, people tripping over cinderblocks or distracted riders falling off skateboards, it seems people of color could find themselves harassed when they play. As Omari Akil explained over the weekend on Medium, aimlessly wandering around, as is required by the game, is not always a safe option for black men, a group of people disproportionately more likely to be stopped on the street and potentially shot during the stop. Out of the 20 minutes he spent playing the game one night, only five of the minutes were playing the game and enjoying himself. "One of those minutes I spent trying to look as pleasant and nonthreatening as possible as I walked past a somewhat visibly disturbed white woman on her way to the bus stop," he wrote. "I spent the other 14 minutes being distracted from the game by thoughts of the countless Black Men who have had the police called on them because they looked 'suspicious' or wondering what a second-amendment-exercising individual might do if I walked past their window a 3rd or 4th time in search of a Jigglypuff." (So far, there have been no documented incidents of Pokémon-related stops escalating to this level.)

Perhaps it's only a matter of time before the real problems with Pokémon Go arrive. With the app leading downloads for iPhones and Androids, and active users approaching mobile Twitter levels, clever players might soon might soon learn how to use the game to devious ends.

According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the U.K. – where the game has not yet been officially launched, but is available illegally for downloaded – the app could be used by child predators to lure children into alleys, a terrifying side effect of getting kids off the couch and into the real world. Here in the United States – home of the robust Second Amendment – law enforcement is worried that players accidentally trespassing onto stranger's property late at night may cause problems. "Please don't try it out at 1 AM and walk into someone's backyard to catch one. Please. Pretty please. #PokémonGo," the Wyoming Minnesota Police Department tweeted. Maybe we should all just go back to playing video games in our living rooms, where the worst thing we could do was break was our televisions

Find out everything you need to know about 'Pokémon Go' app.