One woman was told by a fortune teller that her son was possessed by demons. Another was approached on a Chinatown street by a stranger who eerily claimed her daughter would die in two days. A third was informed that her dead husband was communicating from the grave, telling her to hand over thousands in cash.
"Your son will die in a car accident — he is cursed," a 65-year-old was told.
In each instance, the women bundled up cash and jewelry in a bag and gave it to strangers they'd just met — self-proclaimed spiritual healers. They were told the contents would be blessed in an effort to ward off evil spirits, bring good luck to the family or heal a sick child — they just have to wait a period of time to re-open it.
When they do, they find water bottles, cough drops and beans. But no valuables.
Detectives say there has been a rash in New York of what's known as an evil spirit or blessing scam, where older immigrant women, mostly Chinese, are swindled out of their valuables by clever scammers arriving from China who prey on superstition and fear. In the past six months, two dozen victims have reported valuables stolen — in some cases more than $10,000 in cash and $13,000 in jewelry, according to police reports. A total of more than $1.8 million has been stolen.
"They know the culture, they know how to talk to these victims to get them to listen," chief New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said of the grifts. "One person's spirituality is another's superstition, and they prey on that distinction."
The scam itself has many permutations, but the basic principle is the same: A woman, usually in her 50s or older, is approached by a stranger, usually a younger woman, who asks the woman if she knows where to find a particular healer or fortune teller. Another seeming stranger joins the conversation, says she knows where the healer is located, and convinces the older woman to come along. The healer convinces the victim that in order to ward off some evil, she must hand over valuables in a bag to be blessed. And then they switch the bag.
Similar scams occur in other places in the U.S. with large Asian communities, such as Boston, Seattle, Chicago and in Hawaii. In San Francisco late last year, thieves stole about $2 million in nearly 60 cases. Police there called the scams an organized crime ring. The district attorney's office, police and politicians waged a public safety awareness campaign, including community meetings and a video depicting a reenactment of a scam and tips on how to spot one.
The grift may be prevalent right now in Asian neighborhoods, but it's also rampant in Haitian and Latino communities where there is also distrust of Western culture and banks, and plenty of cash and valuables kept at home, said Dr. Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in New York.
"It has to do with the idea of not necessarily adopting Western belief systems about magic and incantation systems, but staying with some of their traditional spiritual beliefs," he said. "And, in many cases they're so lost and desperate in a foreign culture they will turn to anyone who offers them something in a language they can understand."
A similar public awareness campaign has been underway in New York. Detectives in Chinatowns in Brooklyn and Manhattan have canvassed the streets warning of the scams and put up posters in Mandarin and English warning women.
"The power of belief is serious," Hilfer said. "And faced with an idea of a very expensive, absolutely incomprehensible, say, MRI machine versus someone putting grains or coins into a bag with incantations, it's just less frightening and unfamiliar to them."
New York City detectives say there is no larger criminal organization at work here, most scammers operate in groups of three or five and then disappear after, mostly fleeing back to China. Some arrests have been made, but recovery of the valuables is difficult.
The awareness campaign helped one 67-year-old woman, who turned the tables on the scammers, police and prosecutors said. She was approached June 3 in Manhattan's Chinatown. A younger Chinese girl on the street asked where to find a particular doctor. The accomplice joined and said she knew the doctor, and a third woman turned up saying she was a relative. They persuaded the woman that she was cursed. But rather than go home and bundle up her valuables, she called the cops, who set up a sting and nabbed five suspects after they'd stolen the 67-year-old's bag of fake jewelry.
Manhattan prosecutors charged the five with grand larceny. They are all from China. Lawyers for three didn't return calls seeking comment. But a lawyer for Jun Liang, 44, and Jingchang Quan, 44 said his clients were innocent.
"The prosecution so far seems to be creating guilt by association by pointing out similar cases that have happened around the country," attorney Jae Lee said. "But to really make out a case they're going to have to prove that it was these particular individuals that had the intent to defraud people."
Browne said it looked like the sting broke the scammers' spell: There have been no new reported thefts since.