Law enforcement officials have dubbed it the “blessing scam,” and by now the con’s strange details are familiar to most major metropolises between the coasts: The scammers target elderly Chinese women and trick them into believing that an evil spirit is about to kill a loved one and the only way to prevent the death is through a purification ceremony that involves putting all of their money into a bag. When the women aren’t looking, the con artists switch the bag containing the valuables with a bag containing apples or water bottles.
New York City to Los Angeles, San Francisco to Boston, Seattle to Las Vegas–all were hit with a wave of blessing scams over the past year. This isn’t necessarily a bunch of copy-cats, though. If Kings County prosecutors are right, a traveling band of criminals is responsible for at least some of the reports.
Two women recently convicted of committing the blessing scam in San Francisco face extradition to New York City following their jail terms to face similar charges, San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Michael Sullivan noted at their sentencing hearing.
In late May, the women, 38-year-old Yannu Tan and 36-year-old Mudi Wu, were found guilty alongside two other co-defendants. Tan, convicted on counts of grand theft and attempted grand theft, was sentenced to to two years and four months in prison. Wu, convicted of attempted grand theft, was sentenced to one year.
During the trial–in late April, Sullivan said in court–law enforcement officials in Kings County issued arrest warrants for Wu in connection with a July 24 scam and for Tan in connection with an August 9 scam. Both are set to face charges for the 2012 Brooklyn incidents after completing their sentences. (The Kings County District Attorney’s Office would not comment on the pending extradition.)
Wu’s path is a bit more complicated. She was also wanted in Los Angeles for a scam that took place there on October 20. With several months of time served awaiting trial already clocked in S.F., she was released from jail a few weeks after the conviction. San Francisco officials then extradited her to L.A., where she is currently facing charges. She’ll head to New York once the folks in Southern California have meted out their punishment.
It’s somewhat fitting that the suspects are making the trip eastward. The blessing scam made its American debut in San Francisco in March 2012. Over the next year, the San Francisco Police Department received more than 50 reports of the scam. The S.F. D.A.’s Office estimates that the scammers collectively stole more than $1.5 million in cash and jewelry. As such, the City by the Bay was the first to prosecute the crime–and so far the city has convicted seven out of seven defendants, with one more still awaiting trial.
As the crimes stretched toward the Atlantic, cities like New York had a template to follow. Last week, the New York Times reported that the NYPD, seeking to raise awareness about the scam, is handing out tote bags reading, “Blessing frauds.
Beware of street scams! Please call 911 if you are a victim or witness of a scam.” It was a play San Francisco called in May.
The NYPD has received “more than 10, but less than 50” reports of the blessing scam over the past year, says an NYPD official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the cases. But now the arrests are starting to roll in. Last week, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. announced indictments against Jun Liang, Xiumei He, Yae Chen, Huahuo Chen, and Jingchang Quan. The defendants are charged with grand larceny.