In Chinatowns around the country — in San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, New York — a peculiar financial scam is targeting elderly Chinese women.
This so-called "blessing scam" isn't much of a blessing. By asking lots of personal questions, the scammers convince their targets that they face terrible tragedy that they can only avoid if they place their valuables in a bag — and then pray over it. Usually, the victims place their jewelry and money in a bag that the thieves swap out for an identical one. And then the thieves tell the women not to open the bag for days.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said that more than 50 people have reported being scammed in the city over the last year. Their losses topped $1.5 million.
"There were huge emotional injuries and obviously devastating economic injuries," Gascon said. "These suspects understand the vulnerabilities of these particular communities and are abusing or they're certainly taking advantage of that."
What is it about these particular communities that makes this scam so effective?
Edith Chan, who is with San Francisco's Adult Protective Services and works with scam victims, says the crime works because it plays on the superstitions of some elderly Chinese.
The New York Times also cites a perception that elderly Chinese women are "historically loath to go to the police to report crime. That same distrust extends to banks, and so they are widely believed to have cash at home."
The experience of Kon Yin Wong offers an example of how the scam works. The day scammers targeted Wong, she was shopping for vegetables at a San Francisco farmers' market. Wong says it all began when a woman with a bandaged hand called out to her.
"Hey, elder sister! Elder sister, do you know of a Chinese herbalist doctor who is selling his herbs here?" the woman asked Wong.
Wong said no. A second woman approached, claiming to know the doctor.
"My mother-in-law suffered a stroke and that doctor cured her, and that doctor just lives close by here," the other woman said.
Wong said the two women convinced her that she should meet the doctor, and that it was good to know such a special healer. As they walked, they asked Wong many personal questions.
"So I told them about my family, the number of sons I have, my mother-in-law, and my husband," said Wong.
They ran into a third woman who claimed to be the doctor's granddaughter and seemed to know many personal details about Wong. This woman took one look at Wong and said that great misfortune would befall her family: Wong's husband would fall ill, and her youngest son would die in three days.
Wong panicked. The woman assured her that her grandfather — the doctor — could help. Wong just had to gather all the cash and jewelry she could.
"I was so scared that I wanted to kneel on the ground to beg for the doctor to help me," said Wong.
Wong wasn't the only person in the Bay Area who ran into this type of scam. Gascon, the district attorney, had launched a public awareness campaign to alert potential victims using bus ads, tote bags, and the ethnic media. And fortunately, before Wong got her valuables, she remembered seeing something about the scam in the news.
"All of a sudden I looked up at the sky, it was almost like a moment of clarity, and at that point I remembered I read about it in the newspaper and I'd seen it in the news before," said Wong.
So Wong headed straight to the police station. And soon, authorities captured the scammers. In fact, they had $47,000 on them — the life savings of another woman they had conned earlier that day.
"We Chinese people, we work really hard to save up our money. I was just very happy that I was able to help somebody," Wong said.
City officials gave Wong an award recently. But she said she doesn't feel like a hero — just lucky that the heavens took care of her.