As people wander around with their smartphones capturing Pokemon characters, at least some local businesses are seeing an opportunity to capture some new customers. Unfortunately, some thieves are using the same opportunity to rob hapless players who aren’t always aware of their surroundings.

As a result, businesses hoping to turn foot traffic into sales are welcoming Pokemon Go players, while police and park officials are more cautionary as they ask players to be aware of their surroundings, and to avoid trespassing on private property.

On July 15, Howard County Tourism launched a campaign, “HoCoMon,” that encouraged Pokemon Go players to patronize local businesses. Players got a free HoCoMon T-shirt if they stopped by the Howard County Welcome Center and showed a receipt from a Howard County restaurant, shop or attraction, along with their Pokemon Go app.

Sarah Kurtanich, director of marketing for Howard County Tourism, said the T-shirts were a hit among gamers.

“We ran out of T-shirts in two-and-a-half days — 250 T-shirts,” she said. “Pokemon GO has certainly gotten people out of the house.”

“Old Ellicott City has become quite the hotbed of activity, and both Howard County Tourism and the Ellicott City Partnership are coordinating events,” said Deidre McCabe, director of communications for Howard County government.

A landing page on Howard County Tourism’s website — — listed groupings of PokeStops and gyms around Howard County.

PokeStops, attached to real-world locations such as stores and parks, are where players collect items like PokeBalls and Pokemon Eggs. At Pokemon Gyms, they battle and train their Pokemon characters. The game, which overlays digital graphics into the real world, is a free download that offers a real-world map users traverse with GPS tracking.

Making Players Payers

There’s no question that Pokemon Go has taken the gamer world by storm. But will businesses be able to actually gain customers — or just cope with the wandering crowds of young people who don’t seem to be paying attention to much aside from their small screens?

Owners of restaurants and bars are hoping that Pokemon Go players might need fuel as they walk around more than they usually do; for community centers, it’s a good opportunity to draw in people who might not otherwise visit. At the Gary J. Arthur Community Center, in western Howard County, Pokemon Go players were invited in to catch some Pokemon and enjoy a free ice cream sundae.

“We were having an ice cream social as part of National Recreation & Parks Month and used a Pokemon at that center as part of a Facebook post,” said Anna Wojewodzki Hunter, spokesperson for the Howard County Department of Recreation & Parks. “Our parks and centers have been hot spots for players. It is wonderful to see people actively using our parks. We are not directly promoting the app, but have used Pokemon in posts to promote active lifestyles.”

Gamers Vulnerable

The cute, animated characters have brought a trail of negative news as well. For example, in Parkville (in Baltimore County), players were robbed near an entrance to Belmont Park as they played Pokemon Go just after midnight on July 7. Pokemon players have also drawn criticism from playing the game on the grounds of national monuments and memorials that are meant to be places of reflection.

Distracted driving is another worry, and police are urging players not to continue gaming behind the wheel. Information technology experts have also issued cautions about breaches in Google accounts from Pokemon Go players who are signing in through Google. The game has access to all of a player’s Google data, unless the user creates an account in the app.

Ultimately, it’s about being aware and sensitive to the property and people around you. “While we encourage play, please remind park patrons to obey the rules and be mindful of their surroundings,” said Wojewodzki Hunter.

The Howard County Police said they have not seen any Pokemon players fall victim to robberies or car crashes caused by distracted driving, but they have had some trespassing complaints. “We’re reminding players to refrain from playing, unless they have permission to be on a property,” said Howard County Police spokesperson Lori Boone.

No game-related robberies have been reported in Anne Arundel County, either, but police there advised players to travel in groups, stay in well-lit locations and be alert.

New Opportunities

Local nonprofits and churches are also considering Pokemon Go an opportunity to connect with the community. “The interest in Pokemon Go is nothing short of phenomenal,” wrote Rev. Stephanie Vader in a message to the congregation of Emmanuel United Methodist Church, in Laurel. “This may be a fad that burns out and crashes, and we’ll remember it like Friendster and MySpace. But right now, it’s huge. The sudden explosion in popularity is unprecedented, and that makes it worth taking a closer look.”

It’s an opportunity for hospitality, Vader said, especially because the church has been identified in the game as a “PokeStop” and a Pokemon Gym.

“We should be prepared … to offer a hello, a welcome, a handshake and a few other gratuities: bottles of water, outlets for charging phones, a bicycle tire pump, bathrooms and, if need be, spiritual fellowship.”

Will the trend continue? It might, Kurtanich said, though there are no new t-shirt orders planned.

“Back to school is coming,” she said, “but then the app makers say they have something new coming as well. So only time will tell.”