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Old con resurfaces in LA; how the 'Chinese blessing' scam targets the elderly

Police say con artists are targeting elderly women in Chinese neighborhoods like LA's Chinatown.
Police say con artists are targeting elderly women in Chinese neighborhoods like LA's Chinatown.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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Police say Chinese con artists who target elderly women with superstitious beliefs have returned to the Los Angeles area, using the same scam that duped dozens of residents out of their money a couple of years ago.

On Oct. 18, a resident of L.A.’s Chinatown lost $75,000 in cash and jewelry, Det. Ken Yueng of the LAPD's Asian Crime Unit told KPCC.

Yueng said the woman fell prey to a "Chinese blessing" scam, which typically works like this: Two women approach their target on the street. They casually introduce the target to a third woman who purports to have spiritual gifts. This third person says she can protect people from evil spirits if they bring her valuables to pray over.

Yueng said victims return to the scammers with the requested items in a bag. Then the conspirators swap it for one filled with crumpled newspapers and water bottles. Yeung said a typical line they tell their mark is, "Don’t handle the bag within, let’s say, anywhere between three days to two weeks, or else this spell won’t work."

By then, he says, the criminals are long gone — and quite a bit richer. "This is a lucrative business," Yueng said. "They make a lot of money — and fast."

Yueng said they come from China on tourist visas and bounce between Chinese neighborhoods in L.A., San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York —  a week or two at a time — or until law enforcement and ethnic media catches wind of them. Because they are so mobile, it's hard to know how many criminal groups are perpetrating the hoax, Yueng said.

Earlier this month, San Francisco police warned of Chinese blessing scams, after two elderly residents were targeted.

A rash of incidents cropped up in and around L.A. two years ago. Yueng said he handled six cases in Los Angeles, but spoke to more than 40 other alleged victims in San Gabriel Valley communities including Monterey Park and Alhambra. One suspect was caught and prosecuted.

Yueng said the blessing hoax originated in China and was brought to Hong Kong around 2003. Then it showed up in other places such as Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Indonesia. 

Chinese-language media has widely publicized these crimes, but Yueng said there continue to be victims who don't watch the news or read the papers. Often, he said, those targeted have little education, and in some cases, are illiterate. He said some victims choose not to report the crime because they are ashamed after losing that much money.