THE BLESSING SCAM: The Ugly Fraud Haunting Older Chinese Women

THE BLESSING SCAM: The Ugly Fraud Haunting Older Chinese Women

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Photo: The above NYPD poster warns New York seniors beware of the “blessing scam” targeting older Chinese women.

First of two parts. Read Part 2 here. And click here to see the original publication in Chinese.

NEW YORK--“Your husband is going to die in several days because an evil spirit is following him.” This statement by a middle-age Chinese woman to “Mei Li” so shocked her that she almost fainted as she looked at the woman she had met less than an hour before. But the woman seemed so convincing.

“I need to save my husband’s life,” Li thought. She followed the woman’s instructions and went home. In about two hours, she brought back a bag containing her life savings in cash and jewelry and handed it over. There on the Chinatown street the woman performed a blessing ritual and returned the bag to Li, telling her to go straight back home and not to open the bag for 49 days.

But Li feeling something was wrong and didn’t wait. On opening the bag, she found only some rice and bottles of water--her $280,000 and belongings were gone.

What happened to Li, age 55, the morning of April 18, 2016, was the year’s first “blessing scam” in New York. From that date through the end of December this kind of fraud generated the city’s largest monetary loss from this type of scam since 2012. In 2016, con artists used the blessing-scam to swindle seven Chinese women in New York out of more than $520,000 in cash and jewelry.

A Simple Start, a Sophisticated Scam

The blessing scam started in Hong Kong and spread in Chinese communities worldwide in such Chinatowns as those in San Francisco, New York, Melbourne, Boston, Chicago, Singapore, as well as locations in France and New Zealand. Most victims are female Chinese immigrants from their 40s to 70s.

“This scam is different, in who it preys on,” said Detective Kevin Hui. The 24-year veteran started investigating the blessing scams in 2012 as a member of the New York Police Department’s Criminal Enterprise Investigations Section.

Hui explained, “It is not that you are trying to get rich. If I came up to you and said, ‘Hey I just won the Lotto, but I’m illegal. You might give me $10,000 [to buy] this ticket worth a million.’ So you are doing it because you are greedy. But this [blessing scam] is playing on somebody’s beliefs, and playing on somebody’s sympathy.”

Hui said the perpetrators who approach the victims are all females. They will change the version of the story depending on different victims’ backgrounds, but, he continued, “The underlying theme is the same.” Usually, he said, an organized crime group of five or six perpetrate the scam.

Typically, he said, the first perpetrator starts a conversation with the victim using a simple question, such as, “Do you know Dr. Liu?”

When the victim says no, the first swindler says, “I have an eight-year-old daughter; she’s been having her period early and has been bleeding for three months now and it hasn’t stopped.” She starts crying and says, “I need to find Dr. Liu.”

A second con artist approaches and says, “Oh, I just over heard you talking about Dr. Liu.” She claims to have had a similar same problem, which the fictional Dr. Liu healed, and offers to take her fellow scammer to see him.

The victim, who feels badly for the crying perpetrator, gets drawn in and wants to help. When she agrees to come along to Dr. Liu’s office to provide some emotional support, the first scammer tearfully holds on to the victim’s arm. The victim agrees, because in the Chinese tradition, people don’t like to say “no” when asked for assistance.

As the three start walking, one of the con artists begins asking their victim about herself--where she lives and how many children she has--while keeping a cell phone on to reveal the victim’s personal information to a third criminal in their group. That person then approaches, and one of the women with Lin says, “Hey, aren’t you Dr. Liu’s granddaughter? We are just coming to look for your grandfather.”

How the Scheme Works

Thus begins an elaborate scheme in which the fake “granddaughter” pretends to talk with Dr. Liu, whom she says has lit three incense sticks, but only two would burn. “That means somebody with the last name Lin--her family is going to have a problem,” says the scammer. When Lin says that is her family name, the perpetrator pauses and tells her she has two sons, “and one will die in the next day or two.”

The stunned victim asks, “How do they know my last name? How do they know that I have two kids?”

The phony granddaughter tells her fellow scammer, “I know you also have an eight-year-old daughter having her period early.”

Then she turns back to their victim with a story about an accident. Stating the victim’s address correctly she says, “Some pregnant lady died in a car accident two years ago in front of your house, your son stepped in the blood of the dead woman and her baby and brought it home. That’s why the ghost follows your kid.”

Frightened now, Lin looks helplessly at Dr. Liu’s supposed granddaughter, who tells her, “In order to get rid of that spirit, you have to make an offering to God.” Before the worst happens, she says, “You have to bring jewelry and cash. You need to make sure you get everything because like we know your last name, how many kids you have, God will know how sincere you are to your offering.”

The fake granddaughter suggests that one of the other women accompany her to the bank and her home. There, they wrap the cash in newspaper and put the money and jewelry in a bag the scammer had with her. The criminal also tells the victim to put some rice and oranges in the bag to make it a weightier offering to God.

NYPD Detective Hui explained, “The second lady is sent to watch the victim basically, so they know the victim is not going to the police station. There are also men following them, watching. Usually there are another two people.”

Switching Valuables for Oranges

After the victim takes her life savings to a designated location, Dr. Liu’s granddaughter distracts Lin by performing the blessing, while the perpetrators switch the bag with a similar one containing items that weigh about the same.

“It is just a quick switch of the hand. The victim is not paying attention to the weight, she is worry about her kid’s safety,” said the NYPD’s Hui.

After the ritual, the perpetrators sometimes open a water bottle and wash the victim’s hands. Resealing the bottle, they tell the victim to use the remaining water to cook rice and feed it to her son.

Hui noted, “There are different of stories they come up with, things like that to delay people before they go public—things like, ‘Don’t open the bag for however long.’ Or they tell you not to turn around, just keep walking home, and that’s when they all disappear.”

The female crooks usually hand the victim’s bag to another accomplice, who goes a different direction. Even when the victim identifies the three perpetrators later, the evidence--her money and jewels--is nowhere to be found.

Ke “April” Xu wrote this series for Sing Tao Daily with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Commonwealth Fund. Part 2 will describe what police are doing to prevent it.