07/25/2013 02:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Not a Blessing in Disguise

"They really suffer in silence," said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón at a recent program at The Commonwealth Club. He was referring to victims of the most recent crime wave to hit San Francisco: blessing scams. Especially targeting older, Asian, Cantonese-speaking women, the scam came to the police and district attorney's attention approximately a year and a half ago.

"Suspects typically work in groups of two to four people," said Gordon Shyy, public information officer for the San Francisco Police Department. "They prey on older victims, because they are more susceptible to the story they tell."

The story Shyy is referring to is the scam: One suspect approaches a potential victim on a crowded street or in a marketplace and strikes up a conversation in Cantonese or another Chinese dialect. They steer the conversation toward family and eventually reveal that they sense a negative energy or impending death in the victim's family. The suspect will then suggest a blessing to avoid potential catastrophe. At this point, a second person pretends to overhear the conversation and suggests a third person who can perform the blessing ritual that will rid the victim's family of negative presences. These two seeming strangers suggest going to the third person who can perform the blessing. The third person asks the victim to bring all of her valuables to be blessed. The victim comes back with a bag full of cash and jewelry and the person performs a ritual, during which they switch the victim's bag full of valuables with a bag full of worthless items. At the end of the blessing, the victim is told to go home and not open the bag for a certain period of time. Of course, when the victim finally opens the bag, hoping to have rid her family of an evil presence, she finds her cash and jewelry gone.

The DA's office estimates that there are at least 50 victims and they have lost a total of $1.5 million. However, a concrete number of victims is hard to pin down simply because the crime is underreported. "A lot of people probably didn't report the scam because they were too ashamed," said Stephanie Ong-Stillman, a spokesperson for the San Francisco District Attorney's office.

Albert Samaha, a staff writer for SF Weekly who has reported extensively on the topic, agrees. He said that in addition to victims suffering physical reactions like loss of appetite or inability to sleep, "afterwards, consistently across the board, there is deep shame." He further noted that it is imperative to understand the context in which these scams are taking place, within immigrant communities by people who speak the language. This scam is no different from any other scam: "the only differences are the specifics. All cons are the same -- they prey on beliefs and desperation."

Samaha noted that historically in the United States, immigrant communities have found success by joining together and building up collectively. Scammers in these cases use that to their advantage, by starting conversations in Cantonese. "[There is an] implicit trust in the scam artist because of the nature of immigrant communities," Samaha said. That's precisely the message the DA has touted in his public education campaign, emphasizing the fact that victims are not foolish to have been scammed in this manner. "This is a real crime. This is a real victim. And no, she did not have it coming to her," said DA Gascón. He further added, "They're just getting taken advantage of based on the vulnerability that they have, but, by the way, guess what? We are all vulnerable in our own different ways."

The DA's office and SFPD believe that these crimes may be connected. Ong-Stillman noted that blessing scams are not only occurring nationwide, but around the world. "We suspect that [the criminals] are all part of a larger ring -- they all came from a similar region in China and they are moving around a lot." However, neither the DA nor the police have enough evidence to prove a connection. Yet separately, the DA has obtained convictions in two out of the three blessing scam cases being tried; the third trial has yet to begin. As the first jurisdiction in the nation to have successfully prosecuted perpetrators of blessing scams, the DA is now advising other jurisdictions on prosecution strategies.

2013-07-24-Warningbagscopy.jpg To address the scams locally, the police department and district attorney's office collaborated with Hong Kong police to create a robust public education campaign. Hong Kong had seen a rise in blessing scams in the early 2000s and used a public education campaign effectively to counteract the scams. The San Francisco campaign consisted of public meetings, ads on Muni, and a multigenerational approach using social media, brochures, and giveaways, such as reusable tote bags with warnings about the blessing scam. "We imagine that if a swindler sees a woman with that bag, maybe they won't target her," said Ong-Stillman. At the very least, the bags along with other efforts will spread the word about these crimes.

"It seems to have worked," said Shyy of the SFPD, and added that no incidents of blessing scams have been reported since February 2013. "But we are very vigilant because we don't want people to become complacent and the suspects to come back." Samaha agrees. "The crime only works if the victims don't know about it," he said. And in that train of thought, the DA's office will continue educating the public. "Currently the best thing to do is prevention and education," added Ong-Stillman.

Prevention is especially key, because in many of these cases, victims barely recover their losses, if at all. The DA estimated a $123,000 loss in cash and jewelry among five victims in the first case it prosecuted; however, only $17,000 was recovered, which will be split among the victims. The only case in which the entire amount was recovered was the second case, where an undercover operation led to the suspects being apprehended as they were leaving with the victim's savings--a total of $47,000. To complicate matters, the DA is also wary of people inflating their reported losses, or falsely claiming a loss, Samaha noted. In many cases, victims cannot identify the perpetrators, in which case restitution becomes impossible.

Prevention via education then becomes the most effective tool for combating such a scam. And the DA is quick to note that the educational campaign is not restricted to the affected communities. "Part of what we try to do is educate, not only dealing with the communities that are being impacted, but educating the communities at large that we're all in this together."

Photo credit: SF Safe