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'Elmo' sent to jail as Times Square characters raise concerns

By Luke Swiderski

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A bogus costumed Elmo, who collected tips for cuddling children in family photos in New York's Times Square, was sent to jail for a year on Wednesday for trying to extort $2 million from the Girl Scouts of the USA.

Dan Sandler, 49, a one-time temporary worker for the Girl Scouts, was sentenced after pleading guilty to charges local media said stemmed from his threats to go public with false information that the organization arranged sex between men and young girls at a scout camp.

His one-year term for attempted grand larceny and stalking follows Sandler's unrelated 2012 arrest for an anti-Semitic tirade also while dressed as Elmo, and the arrest in April 2013 of a fake Cookie Monster, who shoved a 2-year-old child whose mother failed to tip him after taking a photo.

The action comes amid growing concerns expressed by public officials and businesses over the unregulated street performers who dress up as Sesame Street, Disney and other characters while roaming midtown soliciting tips after posing for tourist photos.

New York City, which requires vendors to get a license for selling hotdogs and hawking trinkets, has no oversight for the costumed characters.

One recent Saturday night, 65 costumed characters were seen milling about the popular tourist spot, said Gia Storms, spokeswoman for the Times Square Alliance, a business coalition.

"A dangerous character could be hiding in a cuddly character," said New York Councilman Peter Vallone, who is set to introduce legislation this month to regulate each costumed individual as a for-profit business through the city Department of Consumer Affairs.

Edwin Garcia, 19, of Passaic, New Jersey, who wears an Elmo costume in Times Square several times a week, does not agree.

"Most of us are just trying to make a living," said Garcia, who said he is supporting a wife and 7-month-old daughter.

In a good week, he'll take home $600 in photo tips to supplement his nightly job at International Delights bakery, he said.

Vallone's proposed legislation will be modeled on suggestions from the Times Square Alliance. They include requiring performers to undergo background checks, pay taxes on earnings, and complete "some statement on the part of the applicants that they are not infringing on any copyright or trademark issues," Storms said in an email to Reuters.

Those changes will help separate the "guys who are problematic from the guys who are unproblematic... We get that most of these people are trying to make a living," said Times Square Alliance president Tom Tomkins.

Knock-off characters may be a nuisance to companies like Disney and the Sesame Workshop, but Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said putting on a costume and walking around Times Square appears to be protected under the First Amendment.

The Sesame Workshop said in a statement that it supports efforts to find a legislative solution to the costumed characters it sees as infringing on its copyrights.

On a recent evening, after their young daughter posed with Minnie Mouse outside the Disney store in Times Square, a Turkish couple appeared surprised but not bothered to hear that the characters were not Disney employees.

"I would be concerned, but it's such a quick moment. We didn't think deeply about it," said the girl's mother, Bilgehan, 38, who declined to give her last name.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Gunna Dickson)

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