An elderly Chinese woman is approached on the street by a woman speaking Cantonese. The stranger wonders whether the woman knows of a good herbalist but is rebuffed. A third woman appears, intervening in a way that gains the confidence of the first woman. This third woman will then convince her that she is being hounded by evil spirits. At that point the elderly woman is asked to fetch her cash and jewelry, place them in a bag, and bring the entire package to a meeting place, where they will be used in a ritual meant to pacify the supernatural forces. The woman complies, a prayer is said, and she is sent home.
Naturally, she will discover that all her belongings are no longer in the bag, and that she has been the victim of a bait and switch.
With some variation, this scam has occurred between 30 and 40 times in San Francisco this year, police say. Elderly East Asian women are the targets.
The most recent incidents occurred over Labor Day weekend, says SFPD Public Information Officer Carlos Manfredi. Two women in their 60s were defrauded: the first was approached near Grant and Jackson streets in Chinatown on Sunday; she lost thousands of dollars in cash and jewelry. On Monday, another woman was intercepted at Market and Third and handed over her entire life savings.
Police, however, obtained video of the Chinatown incident in progress, which you can see below. Officer Manfredi says the following shows one of the suspects switching bags on the victim...
Anyone who recognizes the suspects should contact inspectors Kim Lewis or Julie Yee at the department's Financial Crimes Unit, at 415 553-1521. Or they can phone in an an anonymous tip at 415 575-4444. There's also a tip line in Cantonese, at 415 553-9212. Other options: send a text to TIP411 with the subject line "sfpd", or submit a tip online.
The suspects in the video may be part of a ring that is already in hot water with the law. In May, three Chinese female nationals were picked up trying to leave the country, then arrested on charges of grand theft, extortion, and defrauding an elder, all related to the evil spirits scam. They are now the subject of pretrial hearings in San Francisco, allegedly having perpetrated the con on five women.
Journalist Kyung Jin Lee has been tracking the case. She says of the three dozen or so women who have come forward as victims, 10 or 11 have reported being defrauded subsequent to the arrest of the three Chinese women. "Police think the current scammers are related to the ones on trial because it's the same M.O.," Lee says. She says the con has also been run in Oakland and Daly City; SFPD's Manfredi says similar reports have surfaced in New York, Chicago, and LA.
Lee talked to the son of one of the victims, who said his mother believed the scammers because one had spoken to her of health concerns she was having. The victim was convinced to empty her safety deposit box of $20,000 in cash and $40,000 in jewelry. She then brought these to a meeting place, where the conwomen gave her a fake jade bracelet as collateral. They said they needed to take the bags containing her valuables in order to "purify the spirit" that was bedeviling her, promising to return with them when the ceremony was done. The woman was told to keep the meeting a secret.
Despite discovering that the address and phone numbers she'd been given were false and that the bracelet was worthless, the victim waited a day to notify her family because of the shame she felt at being duped. Her son says she's been traumatized, and that the family has had to replenish her savings with their own. His mother had also been holding $19,000 earmarked for his wedding -- now that's gone.
Here's a description of the scam introduced by State Sen. Leland Yee and presented in Cantonese...