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Sgt. Scott Merce spoke to about 12 people outside the Virginia Beach Police Department Thursday about a growing safety concern – Pokemon GO.
The free, location-based mobile game developed by Niantic, which was released in the United States last week, allows players to capture, battle, and train virtual fictional creatures called Pokémon. The augmented reality game utilizes GPS and phone cameras, and requires users to venture outside to collect the creatures. Outside the police department at 2509 Princess Anne Road, Merce listed nine main tips to follow so that players and the parents of players can avoid dangerous situations, like robberies or traffic accidents.
“It’s a phenomenon,” Merce said of Pokemon GO in a later phone interview. “It’s changing society’s interaction. You can see people playing the game at almost any location you go to.”
The game has garnered millions of players of all ages worldwide. But it also has increased the potential for robberies and traffic accidents, Merce said.
Playing the game while walking around and crossing streets creates a hazard, he said. Recently, Merce was passed on the freeway by a driver who was going 65 mph per hour while holding a mobile phone with a Pokémon screen open.
The game includes “gyms” and “Poke stops” where users can battle each other and collect more poke balls, which are required to catch the Pokemon creatures. These gyms and stops are assigned to real locations, such as museums and businesses.
Some business owners, whose spaces are labeled as gym or PokéStops, or are situated next to one, are experiencing increased foot traffic. Others are using the game feature to attract potential customers to their businesses by purchasing a “lure” for up to 24 hours. Lures increase the rate of Pokemon generation in the area near a PokéStop.
The Adventure Park at Virginia Aquarium quickly capitalized on the game, announcing on its Facebook page a “PokeMonday” event July 18. Visitors to the park that evening will be able to climb through obstacles in the trees and catch Pokemon at the same time.
“Lures will be dropping all night,” the event description states.
However, anyone can purchase a Lure, which also makes it a tool for robbers, Merce said.
“A criminal could set a lure at a stop in a game and attract people to come to it late at night,” he said, adding that doing so would make anyone “potentially a robbery victim.”
The concept of luring victims to specific areas with extra Pokémon isn’t far off from more common methods employed by criminals, Merce said.
“We think about traditional scary predator stories, using candy to lure children. It’s a new digital version within (Pokemon GO) that does that,” he said.
The safety tips Merce offers to anyone involved with Pokemon GO include the following:
- Put down the phone while crossing the street.
- Catch Pokémon with a partner, not alone.
- Ask permission before entering private property.
- Set limitations on where children can collect the creatures, the police department discoursages players from hunting on railroad tracks, in industrial areas or near water without taking safety precautions.
- Expect an increase of unfamiliar vehicles in neighborhoods, but still report suspicious activity.
- Exercise caution with Lures set during late hours, and don’t approach them alone.
- Don’t play Pokémon GO while driving.
So far, Virginia Beach hasn’t experienced any robberies or traffic accidents related to use of the game, Merce said. The tips and public announcements made by the police department are precautions that hopefully will prevent future harm.
“We want to get ahead of it and be proactive with our message for safety, rather than being reactive after someone got hurt or became the victim of a crime,” Merce said.