It’s often called the Silent Epidemic — the various scams and schemes used to bilk seniors out of their money and valuables. “Silent” because the victims, often frail and vulnerable older people, are more often than not too frightened, too embarrassed or too ashamed to tell anyone — including family members and friends — that they’ve been caught up in an abusive trap, much less alert police or other authorities. Experts estimate that only one in 44 victims of fraud report such crimes. And they say it’s simply easier to exploit a senior citizen, especially one with cognitive impairments or one living alone and vulnerable, than it is to rob a bank.
It’s a costly epidemic, too, recently calculated to cause seniors to lose an astounding $36.5 billion a year.
One of the most pernicious of these crimes, The Blessing Scam, originated in China and Hong Kong, but makes the rounds in waves in the United States every couple years — and there’s an uptick of it now. Hardest hit are cities with high concentrations of Chinese residents including Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco.
The Scam in Action
The Blessing Scam targets seniors, most often women, who have deep religious or superstitious beliefs that spirits control everything around them. The scammers, who work in teams, follow a similar script: Two individuals, who pretend not to know one another, strike up a conversation with an elderly victim they might find standing alone in line at a store or waiting at a bus stop. One of them engages the senior in a chat, casually eliciting some information about family members or personal concerns; another poses as a “helpful stranger,” who says he or she has gotten life-saving help in the past from a particular spiritual doctor or psychic healer.
The conversation is secretly transmitted, usually by cell phone or hidden microphone, to a third person, who is playing the part of the healer. The victim is then persuaded to visit the alleged healer who, thus informed with personal facts about the victim, delivers the alarming news that he or she or a family member is about to suffer a serious misfortune that can be avoided only if a “blessing ceremony” is performed. The healer will instruct the victim to place money or other valuables in a bag so that he or she can pray over it and remove the danger. Once the valuables are in the bag, however, one of the other scammers replaces it with a similar-looking bag that’s been stuffed with worthless items and trash and hands it back to the victim, who is advised not to open the bag again for several days or risk ruining the blessing’s benefits.
In the meantime, the scammers make off with the bag full of valuables — often hightailing it out of the country, or to another community with a high concentration of Asian residents to reenact their crime. It is common for them to deposit the large sums of money they steal into Las Vegas casino accounts that can then be accessed in casinos in Macao.
Recent cases — rare ones, in which the perpetrators were caught and prosecuted — illustrate there’s lots at stake.
- In San Francisco, a victim lost $80,000 in cash and $40,000 in jewelry after three Cantonese-speaking fraudsters told her she was under a curse that could affect her loved ones that could only be removed if she presented her valuables to be blessed.
- In another case, in Los Angeles, a senior put $70,000 in cash and jewelry in a bag for the alleged blessing.
- And in New York City’s Chinatown, a woman lost both her life savings of $280,000 and all her valuable jewelry to scammers who convinced her a blessing was needed to save her husband, who was being followed by an evil spirit.
What Makes an Easy Target
Jason Hui, a crime and intelligence specialist with the San Francisco Police Department, says there are a number of reasons that the chosen victims are perceived as easy targets for the Blessing Scam.
Distrust of institutions and authorities. Most elderly Asians do not believe in banks, which are seen as uniquely western institutions. Hui, himself Asian, says he remembers his parents keeping all their money at home — stowed away in shoe boxes or under the mattress — a practice common to many other Asian immigrants. He also says many people of his parents’ vintage are wary of American government authorities, and do not wish to disclose their wealth, large or small, to a public institution. Those scammed are also less likely to report wrongdoings of any kind to the police.
Language barriers. Many of the older Asian immigrants speak no English or very little of it.
Belief systems. “Almost all the people who are scammed in this way have the superstitious belief that a spiritual healer has supernatural powers,” Hui says. “They are more likely to go to a healer, for example, than a medical doctor when they’re ill.”
Family complications. Finally, the targets often feel a strong duty to protect other members of their families, so can be easily coerced if told their relatives may be in danger. They are also less likely to report their involvement in a scam to other family members because of strong feelings of shame or guilt.
Crackdowns on the Crime
While Hui admits that the likelihood of recovering money and valuables lost in a Blessing Scam is usually slim, he has cited a number of efforts the Special Victims Unit has put in place to help stamp out the problem — and urges other cities affected to adopt them.
- Once the scammers have been identified, local law enforcement alerts Homeland Security, and borders are secured to prevent them from leaving the U.S.
- The unit has partnered with a number of existing organizations aiding the elderly to help educate groups of seniors about the scam problem.
- The local Adult Protection Services agency has also been involved to help assure the mental well being of those who have been victims in the aftermath of the scams.
- The San Francisco Police Department website includes a video in Cantonese explaining the inner workings of the Blessing Scam and telling viewers how to get help.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has published a factsheet and online video describing the Blessing Scam. The video is also available in Cantonese and Mandarin.
The DA’s office also offers a number of tips to keep seniors safe from Blessing Scam fraudsters:
- Talk to family members before agreeing to any spiritual help that involves providing valuables or personal information.
- If anyone approaches offering to bless items or warns of impending doom, leave immediately and call police.
- Travel with someone whenever possible and keep a lookout for people unusually interested in getting to know you.
And New York authorities have stepped up efforts to charge perpetrators of the Blessing Scam with hate crimes, which substantially increases the punishment for those convicted.