San Francisco warning elderly about 'blessing' scam

A flier warning people in Chinatown about the Blessing scam.
May 14, 2013 9:34:37 PM PDT
A new public awareness campaign to help protect the Chinese community launches this Wednesday with San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon stepping up efforts to get the word out about a crime targeting the elderly.

Thieves are praying on the fears of older people who end up handing over their life savings. Police call it a blessing scam. The crime is increasing in frequency and it's taking a toll.

Gascon met with a woman who lost $10,000 she'd saved to send her children to college.

"She worked at a restaurant, she worked in the kitchen; had been saving for years," he said.

Community activist Winnie Yu sees the long term effects on victims.

"They are much more afraid of going out or even engaging with the community or the public because there's a sense of shame for having been a victim," she said.

The scam works like this: someone convinces the victim to see a fake doctor who then tells the victim they have a curse. To cleanse themselves, the fake doctor asks the victim to put their jewelry and cash in a bag so that it can be blessed. The suspects then switch the bag for worthless merchandise and flee.

Yu says the criminals speak Chinese and know their victims are deeply spiritual and dedicated to family.

"The older generation will feel very threatened, in fear of their family or their children's lives and so they will then be willing to sacrifice," she said.

Gascon says the blessing scam is happening nationwide and in China. Victims are usually working class people who are unlikely to recover from the financial hit. And unfortunately they are unlikely to report the crime to police.

The new outreach campaign will try to change that. First, they want victims to talk to investigators.

"Make sure that if there is someone that has been victimized that they report it. They don't need to feel ashamed of themselves; we have a lot of services here. We can work with them in Cantonese, Mandarin, whatever language they speak and we are aggressively pursuing this case," said Gascon.

And second, they want people to raise awareness by talking to each other.

"Take this seriously it could happen to you it could happen to your family and they have to be aware and mindful and protect themselves," said Yu.

Police say they have reports of the crime also happening in San Francisco's Sunset and Richmond Districts as well as Visitacion Valley.

To date, thieves have taken $1.5 million from 50 people ranging in age from 40 to 80 years old. But there is good news, San Francisco is the first city to prosecute these scammers.

In three cases so far, there have been two guilty verdicts and a third is going to trial soon.


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