Kon Ying Wong was planning to buy vegetables at a San Francisco farmers market when she was told her son was going to die.
It all began when a woman with a bandaged hand called out to Wong at the market, asking if she knew of a particular Chinese herbalist. When Wong told the woman she knew of no such doctor, a second woman appeared, acting as though she had overheard the conversation.
“Oh, I know that doctor,” the second woman said. “My mother-in-law suffered a stroke and that doctor cured her. He lives close by.”
Sitting in a conference room at the San Francisco district attorney’s office months later, Wong recounted how the two women convinced her to meet the doctor, too, saying it was good to know such a special doctor. Along the way, they asked Wong many personal questions.
“I told them about my family, the number of sons I have, my mother-in-law, my husband,” Wong said.
When they ran into a third woman claiming to be the doctor's granddaughter, she took one look at Wong and told her that great misfortune would befall her family. Wong's husband would fall gravely ill, and her youngest son would die in three days.
“I don't know why, but I really believed it at the time,” Wong said.
The third woman told Wong not to worry, that her grandfather could perform a ceremony that would banish the evil ghost that wanted to hurt her son. She told Wong she would try to convince her grandfather to see her. In the meantime, Wong should gather as much money and jewelry as she could.
“I was so scared, “ Wong said. “I wanted to kneel on the ground to beg for the doctor to help me.”
The scam on Kon Ying Wong is often referred to as the “ghost scam” or “blessing scam.” Thieves target elderly Chinese women and persuade them to have a blessing ritual performed on their cash and jewelry or face terrible tragedy. The valuables are placed in a bag that the thieves swap out for another bag as they perform the fake ceremony. They instruct the women not to open the bag for several days.
“The cases are hard to prosecute,” San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said. “It can be weeks before a victim reports the crime, and the offenders are very mobile. They work the community for a day or two, maybe three days, and then they're out they go to another city.”
And the scam has a global reach.
“We're aware that similar scams have occurred in Hong Kong and Singapore,” Gascón said. “Here in the U.S., we know that New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and San Jose have had some cases.”
In San Francisco, more than 50 people have reported being scammed in the last year. Their losses have totaled more than $1.5 million. Gascón’s office has been able to get convictions in two separate cases, with a third about to go to trial. But they have been able to recover only about $70,000.
“As you can see, it pales in comparison to the money that is reported stolen,” Gascón said.
The crime is effective because it plays on popular superstitions in Chinese culture, and the value that is placed on family, said San Franciso’s Adult Protective Services Supervisor Edith Chan. The agency follows up with scam victims. According to Chan, the crime has had lasting impacts, including depression and nightmares.
“Some of [the seniors] mention that they actually couldn’t go to sleep to the point that they have to take sleeping pills,” Chan said. “At least one person mentioned that she's afraid to go back to the same neighborhood.”
Others are ashamed and embarrassed or avoid telling family members out of fear of losing their independence.
“For example, maybe a family member will say you can get spending money on a regular basis, but not maintain a bank account,” Chan said.
One bright spot is that the number of victims has gone down in recent months. Chan attributes this to efforts by the district attorney’s office to get the word out in ethnic media outlets, with bus ads and warnings on reusable shopping bags.
For Kon Ying Wong, the public awareness campaign made a difference. As she rushed home that Saturday to get her valuables and head to the bank, Wong said she suddenly stopped.
“I look up at the sky, almost like a moment of clarity,” Wong said. “At that point I remembered I read about (the scam) in the newspaper and I’d seen it in the news.”
Wong headed to a police station. Within hours the police had captured the thieves, who had $47,000 on them. It was the life savings of another woman they had scammed earlier that day.
“I was very happy that I was able to help somebody,” Wong said with a wide smile. “Us Chinese people, we work very hard to save up our money.”
Next week, Wong is expected to get an award from the city. But Wong said she doesn’t feel like a hero. She just feels lucky that the heavens saw fit to smile upon her that day.