The pendulum of the “blessing scam” has swung the other way: 2012 will go down as the year the crime swept through the country, from San Francisco to New York; 2013 will go down as the year the con artists behind it were swept behind bars.
On Tuesday, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. announced that five of the thieves pleaded guilty in State Supreme Court to charges of third degree attempted grand Larceny as a hate crime and first degree scheme to defraud.
It marked the latest victory for law enforcement officials in their fight against a nationwide wave of scammers who have collectively pilfered millions of dollars in cash and jewelry from elderly Chinese women in a little over a year.
While the scam has decades-old roots in southeast Asia, it first emerged up in America in San Francsico in March 2012. (Here’s a feature I wrote on the scam earlier this year for SF Weekly.) Since then, it’s quickly spread, popping up in Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas, Boston, and New York City.
The con worked like this: The scammers targeted elderly Chinese women, convincing them that an evil spirit was about to kill a loved one, and the only way to prevent the death was through a purification ceremony that involved putting all of their money into a bag. When the women weren’t looking, the con artists switched the bag containing the valuables with a bag containing apples or water bottles.
The five middle-aged defendants in this case–Huahuo Chen, Yae Chen, Xiumei He, Jun Liang, Jingchang Quan–worked the fraud in Chinatown on June 3. They stole $1,000 and a wedding band from a woman who collected cans for a living, according to prosecutors.
Their next target, however, took her suspicions to the police.
From there, the cops set up a sting operation. The woman returned to perform the ceremony, and when the defendants tried to leave with her valuables, police officers arrested them.
These five were the third set of New York defendants to face charges.
In April, Kings County prosecutors issued arrest warrants for two women who on trial for the crime in San Francisco. Yannu Tan and Mudi Wu were convicted and sentenced to two years behind bars (most of which they had completed while awaiting trial). They were among the eight scammers convicted in SF this year.
Following their sentence, the San Francisco D.A.’s office told the Voice at the time, the women would be extradited to Brooklyn–although Wu first had to face similar charges in Los Angeles. Kings County authorities charged Wu in connection with a scam on July 24, 2012, and Tang for a scam on August 9 of that year.
Two other convicted scammers–arrested on a layover in San Francisco’s airport while travelling from New York City to Hong Kong–also face charges here.