Bag scammers target more Chinese victims

Another victim of a fraud targeting elderly Chinese women has come forward, police said, reporting she was scammed for large amounts of cash and jewelry, like many others in the last year.

Officer Gordon L. Shyy of the San Francisco Police Department said last week the victim told police she was conned by several women, who convinced her that either her or her family would be harmed if she didn’t perform a ritual involving lots of cash and jewelry in a bag tied up tight.

This fraud allegedly occurred in January, but the victim only recently came forward to police. Reporting this type of crime well after the fact has been part of the problem with investigating them, Shyy told SFBay:

“She reported it this week but it occurred last January. Two months have elapsed and that really hinders our investigation.”

It is not uncommon with these crimes for the victims to be so ashamed of getting fooled that they don’t tell anyone until well after the crimes have occurred, so this has been a recurring problem for investigators.

A common version of this scam is for one of the suspects to strike up a conversation with the victim. Then another suspect, pretending to be eavesdropping nearby, enters the conversation.

At some point they convince the woman she has either an evil spirit or a curse on her, but then she is offered an introduction to another woman who can get rid of it for her.

The victims are told to put large amounts of cash and jewelry in a bag, tie it up and give it to the third woman. She performs a ritual over the bag to “purify” it, and then tells the victims to place it under their beds for several days.

The victims are told if they look inside the bag before then, however, the ritual will not work.

When the victims eventually do look, they find the valuables have been switched for worthless rubbish, Shyy said:

“The victims obviously are older and still believe in various superstitions from their homeland, and when someone comes up to you and says ‘if you don’t give me all your belongings and have me bless them, then your family members are going to die,’ then you become concerned if you still believe in those superstitions.”

According to police, this latest victim wasn’t the only one hoodwinked in January. On January 19, at about 10:15 a.m. on the 2500 block of Noriega Street, a 70-year-old San Francisco woman was conned out of about $50,000 worth of cash and jewels.

Police said in that incident they were able to obtain surveillance video footage of the suspects. The three suspects were all wearing hats and are believed to be associated with a late-model silver Toyota Prius.

In another incident last December 18, at about 10:30 a.m. near the intersection of Balboa and 16th Avenue, a 64-year-old woman was waiting for a bus when a suspect approached her and asked if there was an herbal doctor located nearby.

The victim replied “no,” but a second suspect approached and said there was a good one located nearby. The two suspects convinced the victim that she should join them for good luck and to have her valuables “blessed.”

The victim went home and got both American and foreign currency to be blessed. A third suspect, who blessed a bag with the victim’s valuables, told her not to open the bag for seven days.

The victim got suspicious and looked in the bag, finding her money replaced with a water bottle and newspaper.

The suspects were all women between 45 and 55 years of age, all with short hair.

All these crimes happened well after three women were arrested for this type of fraud last May, caught just as they were trying to flee the country at SFO, said Shyy.

In that case the victim was on the verge of giving the suspects her belongings but then at the last minute thought better of it, Shyy said:

“Instead they contacted a family member, who contacted us and we were able to make some arrests out of that last call.”

The District Attorney’s office charged Huifei Lin, 42, Caiqiong Chen, 43, and Lirong Lin, 57, with felony grand theft, extortion, robbery and defrauding an elder.

Investigators believe a much larger operation is at work, with a couple of dozen crimes like this in San Francisco in the last year estimated to have cost victims hundreds of thousands of dollars in valuables.

Police have been working with other agencies in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, New York and Hawaii, all places where this kind of fraud has shown up, Shyy said:

“They target cities with a large Chinese population because it’s a target-rich environment.”

Before Chinese New Year, the SFPD passed out bags to businesses, community and senior centers in the Chinese-American community, with warnings about this type of fraud with messages in Cantonese and Mandarin.

The project was funded through donations raised by SFSafe and was designed to raise awareness of this scam, and also hopefully deter would-be fraudsters into getting nervous enough to go somewhere else.

This idea came from a trip that investigators from the DA’s office and the SFPD took to Hong Kong, seeking information on how to deal with this type of crime, Shyy said:

“They’ve had this problem for a decade. It’s the same thing. … The only way to get the numbers down, as far as number of cases, was through education. Of course when we find a suspect we’ll make arrests but unfortunately when you arrest one person, another one pops up.”