Since April, con artists have swindled Asian women in New York out of almost $500,000 in cash and jewelry using what's called a Chinese blessing scam.
Police are looking for a group of five women allegedly running the scam in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. According to Gothamist, in four of the five incidents, the victims were in their 50s and 60s.
Imported from China, the scam is a classic. Typically, three perpetrators approach a woman, usually older and Chinese, and tell her she and her family are cursed. For example, in a 2013 incident, a woman pretending to be the granddaughter of a spiritual doctor told her victim that her sons, in particular her youngest, would be involved in a "bloody incident" within three days.
The only way to reverse the curse, according to the scammers, is to perform a blessing ritual over a bag of money and jewelry. Once the victim hands over the bag, the scammer swaps it out for an identical bag filled with bottles of water, and makes off with her valuables.
In the latest rash of incidents, the NYPD reports one woman lost $280,000 and an unknown amount in jewelry. Another woman was robbed of $3,000 in jewelry and $19,000 in cash.
One reason elderly Asian women might be targeted in this scheme is lack of education which can lead to being superstitious, says Lani Wong, chair of the National Association of Chinese Americans.
"When you're superstitious and believe in all kinds of supernatural stuff," Wong tells Broadly. "They are susceptible to fraud. People can scare them and say they're cursed. 'You have to do something or your family and you will be affected.'"
Wong says they've not seen the Chinese blessing scam surface in Atlanta, where her association is based, but it has appeared in other parts of the country. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, there were 47 cases and 10 people charged with the crime in 2012.
Earlier this year, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón visited a senior center in Chinatown to raise awareness of the scheme. "Do not give up your valuables," Gascón said. "And don't tell a stranger your Social Security number." The city has also been distributing shopping bags with warnings about scammers written in Chinese.