SAN FRANCISCO — On a sunny fall Saturday at a farmer’s market in San Francisco, three women aggressively approached a Chinese woman in her 60s. Authorities say they told her she was plagued by evil spirits and that a loved one was in danger.
They frightened her, telling her to get her money and valuables and to bring them back for “a blessing” to save her family.
She remembered hearing about a similar tale and went to the police. When officers arrived, they arrested the trio and a man who was holding money and other valuables that police say they just scammed from another older Asian woman moments earlier.
Such crimes have not only played out in San Francisco. They have occurred in other cities with large Asian communities, such as Seattle, Boston, Chicago and Honolulu. They have also occurred in the United Kingdom and in Australia in recent years.
Authorities in San Francisco say the thieves have stolen about $2 million in nearly 60 cases. Three other women, arrested while attempting to catch a plane to Hong Kong in May, are awaiting trial on 28 felonies, including grand theft and extortion.
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr has flatly called the scams “an organized crime ring” with likely international ties, prompting his city — whose Asian community is about a third of its overall population — to find ways to combat it.
In San Francisco, where the scams began surfacing in March, the district attorney’s office, police and politicians have waged a public safety awareness campaign, including community meetings and a video depicting a reenactment of a scam and tips on how to spot one.
“They’re clearly preying on the immigrant community who has stronger religious beliefs and customs. It’s been a very profitable scam,” district attorney George Gascon said.
Prosecutors say the three women awaiting trial stole more than $100,000 in various scams of cash and jewelry from women they approached by telling them they could remove a curse if they handed over their money for a “purification” ceremony.
Gascon said at one of several community meetings on the scams he was approached by a woman in her late 50s who spoke little English. She tearfully described through a translator how she was scammed of $10,000 — money she had been saving for her kids’ education.
“She was sobbing and said ‘I thought I was the only one. I felt very stupid,’” the district attorney said. “She said, ‘People at work were asking me what was wrong with me and I couldn’t tell them what happened to me.’”
Anni Chung, president of a self-help organization for seniors in San Francisco, shame was preventing them from talking about it.
“They are too ashamed, too embarrassed to tell any that they have been cheated,” Chung said. “They’re worried that family members would be upset with them. But, now with all of this attention and the arrests, they are starting to understand that this is a big deal.”
It is a scam that is popping up in other states and countries.
In Boston, an Asian woman told police in April that she was approached by three scam artists in Chinatown who she claimed hypnotized her without permission. She said she gave them $160,000 in cash, jewelry and other valuables.
Police in Vancouver, B.C., say the scammers try selling victims a “lucky jade bracelet” or bottles of “blessed mystical water” that supposedly removes bad luck and restores her victim’s family karma.
One woman reportedly removed $15,000 from her bank account to buy the junk jewelry.
In Seattle, where older Chinese women are prime targets, three Cantonese-speaking women approached one woman in the city’s International District and told her that her entire family was in danger, a local community expert said.
The woman withdrew $50,000 from her bank and gave the thieves $20,000 worth of jewelry in a backpack so her family can be “blessed.” The scammers told her not to open the backpack for week. When she did, she discovered that her possessions had been replaced with flour, tapioca and bottles of water.
“Older people believe more deeply in the ancient traditions and superstitions, but in these instances, it also makes them very, very vulnerable,” said Alan Lai, a crime victim project director of the Chinese Information and Service Center in Seattle.
Lai said the scam artists work usually in teams of three or four. They scout out their areas well in advance to make sure they avoid surveillance cameras and a large police presence.
The scammers, Lai said, usually approach the victims with an in-your-face, life-or-death urgency declaring that spirits or ghosts are ready to harm a relative and that they must see a “healer” to be saved.
“They say, ‘To be sincere, bring all of your cash and your jewelry. Don’t leave anything behind or you won’t be helped,’” Lai said. “Then they say, ‘This is a heavenly secret, don’t leak (this) to anybody. Heavenly secrets should not be leaked.’
“This is how powerful and persuasive these thieves can be,” Lai said.