THE BLESSING SCAM: A Con Returns to Haunt Chinese Community

THE BLESSING SCAM: A Con Returns to Haunt Chinese Community

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Photo: NYPD community affairs officers like this one shown speaking at a Manhattan Chinatown senior center conducted an awareness campaign warning about elder fraud.

Second of two parts. Read Part 1 here. And click here to see the original stories in Chinese.

NEW YORK--Since the blessings scam hit the United States in 2012, reported losses have mounted in Chinatowns around the country. For instance, San Francisco authorities say the scam has cost its residents around $1.5 million in money and property. In New York City there were 41 blessing scams in 2012 alone totaling $1.02 million.

Although these scams dropped dramatically following joint prevention efforts by local law enforcement and federal agencies, the number of blessing scams started to rise in 2016 in New York.

These frauds are typically perpetrated by teams of five or six criminals who trick their victims into believing a love one will soon die unless they bring their life savings and valuables to receive a blessing. She is not asked to pay for this ceremony, but while she is distracted during the ritual, thieves switch the bag of money and jewelry with a similar one holding only rice, oranges and water bottles. (Read Part 1 of this series for a detailed description of this heinous crime.)

A Half-Million Dollars in 2016

According to NYPD, there were seven incidents reported in the city in 2016, for losses of $526,100, compared with only three cases in 2015. Overall, from 2012 through 2016, there are 80 incidents reported in total from 2012 to 2016. Of those, 35 were reported in the 109th precinct in Flushing and the 5th precinct in Manhattan, where New York’s two major Chinatowns are located.

“Most of the scammers will hit New York area, because New York is easier to target, everything is concentrated,” said Detective Kevin Hui of the NYPD Criminal Enterprise Investigations Section. In one incident, some scammers first went to Chicago. Then they realized there were a lot of Caucasians in Chicago’s Chinatown. “The Chinatown there is spread out. They came back, it wasn’t worth their time.”

In order to combat such crimes, authorities formed a task force including members from the New York and Los Angeles police departments, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, federal agencies and local police in different countries. In sharing tips on crimes, Hui said, “it is like real-time information sharing.”

Still, a lot of incidents remain unreported. “Many Chinese victims don’t want to report to the police. Some are afraid, some feel ashamed that they got tricked,” said Xueyuan Deng, president of Lin Sing Association, one of the biggest Chinese civil organizations in New York.

According to Deng, he knew three senior victims in Elmhurst, who didn’t report the incidents to police. One of them, who is in her 70s, makes a living by picking up trashes and cans. “Now she lost all of her savings, including the money for her final funeral,” Deng said.

Because some benefit from programs for low-income people, Deng said, “They are afraid that they don’t know how to explain why they had such a big amount of cash at home to the police.”

On the other hand, some seniors feel their mistakes are so stupid that they don't want to tell others.

The unique scam targeting Chinese community is also a cultural matter. In a study titled “Conscious and Nonconscious Components of Superstitious Beliefs in Judgment and Decision Making,” researchers Thomas Kramer and Lauren Block of New York’s Baruch College cited previous research suggesting that people are motivated to rely on superstitious beliefs when their control over an event is undermined or threatened.

For instance, when a perpetrator tells a victim that a ghost is following and going to kill her beloved ones, the victim tend to seek help from the power of blessing.

“It is definitely related to culture,” said Hui. He explained, “This scam starts off as simple as asking you a question like, ‘Oh, do you know the direction to a place.’ I guess Asians don’t see Asians as fraudsters.”

Because Chinese are very family driven and emphasize filial piety, he said, “all of them are just pretty much good-hearted people, care for families, that’s why they become victims.”

See Something, Say Something

Four women were arrested in an alleged blessing-ritual scheme in New York City last summer. Authorities said that the women, who were ages 44 to 57, scammed at least five victims between April and June in 2016.

Even though the suspects were caught, Hui said, “It is very difficult to get money back unless you catch the perpetrators right away. They go to where they stay and divide the money right away. Sometimes they will go to money-wire or transfer places immediately. The faster the victim brings it to our attention before they starting wiring the money or packaging the money, probably the better.” He added, “When perpetrators get back to China, they buy real estates; it is hard to track down.”

Emotional trauma following a scam takes even longer to recover from. “Some of the victims are in their 50s, close to 60s, and were going to retire. [They] have to go back to work,” Hui said. “One victim’s husband doesn’t even talk to her anymore because she gave up their whole life savings. It gets bad. Their daughters and sons try to talk to them, try to give a hand because for the Asian parents--their sense of security is having money for the final funeral.”

He continued, “Public awareness is the most effective tool to avoid having other people be victimized.”

In many cases, he said, perpetrators stand on street corners for a long time looking for a potential victim. “You can see from the video [we have] some people saying, ‘Just get away from me,’ and they keep walking.” Hui urged those who suspect someone like this is a scammer to call the police before they can commit a crimes.

To raise the public’s awareness of blessing scams, San Francisco made public service announcements and a reenactment video, telling people what happened to the victims.

Also, NYPD crime-prevention and community affairs officers have participated in awareness campaigns, handing out flyers and reusable bags that warns people about the scam. They have been going to senior centers and community council meetings in precincts with high concentration of Asians.

Hui mentioned that the younger generation also has a responsibility to educate their parents or grandparents. Peter Chong, Detective of the 5th precinct in New York suggests that people remind family members to add two names to a safety deposit box that requires both parties to be present to retrieve their items. People should also put a cap on how much money can be withdrawn from a bank at one time.

Those who leave their life savings at home should not talk to strangers, or even make eye contact, Chong said: “Our victims heard of the scam in the past and they are still willing to give away their life savings. Don't be a victim. Mind your own business.”

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.