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Romance scammers are targeting Asian American seniors

Speaking at a briefing event in San Francisco on March 30, 2023, Japanese American immigrant Katsumi Iwasaki told the story of being scammed. | Courtesy Ethnic Media Services

If you are constantly receiving text messages from apologetic yet persistent strangers asking about random things, be careful about engaging with them: The conversation might be the start of a scam.

And if you speak any Asian languages, these impersonating scammers, both domestic and international, may target you with savvy, in-language messages for winning your trust.

National data from Federal Trade Commission reveals that scams are on the rise, and a record-breaking $8.8 billion was lost to scammers in the U.S. in 2022. The commission, which partnered with Ethnic Media Services, a nonprofit focusing on journalism produced by ethnic communities, hosted an Asian media briefing event in San Francisco last week to raise awareness—as many of the scam victims are Asian immigrant elders.

Ethnic Media Services hosted a media briefing with the Federal Trade Commission to raise awareness about scams in San Francisco. | Courtesy Ethnic Media Services

The top two types of scams are investment and impersonator scams, which took $3.8 billion and $2.6 billion from victims last year, respectively. However, in California and the Bay Area, imposter scams are the most widely reported.

Romance Scam

The romance scam has shown an upward trend, as isolated elders with limited English proficiency can become easy targets.

Katsumi Iwasaki, a Japanese American immigrant who attended the briefing event, told the media about his own story of being scammed. A longtime San Francisco resident, Iwasaki lost his partner to cancer, and later, he fell in love with a “man” online who shared photos of a handsome, 6-foot-4-inch man in a military uniform.

After establishing a romantic relationship online, the “lover” asked Iwasaki to wire money using various ploys, such as that he wanted to send gold but needed help covering the shipping, tax and insurance fees. After the money was transferred, the online lover disappeared, resulting in Iwasaki losing his entire life savings. Only then did he seek help from the API Legal Outreach, a nonprofit that provides culturally competent representation. Far from retreating into embarrassment, Iwasaki is speaking out.

“I lost almost $400,000, gold and ‘my love,’” Iwasaki joked at the event. “So, be careful out there.”

Katsumi Iwasaki, a Japanese American immigrant, told the story of being scammed, joking that he lost almost $400,000, gold and "my love.” | Courtesy Ethnic Media Services


For Chinese speakers in particular, rampant scams have practically become part of daily life. Chinese-language media has reported extensively on scammed victims’ stories, including an extreme case of a Chinese American woman in Chicago who committed suicide after losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This scam has also earned the nickname of “pig-butchering” (杀猪盘, or “sha zhu pan”), a phrase that originated in the scammers’ own circles, as they would compare the process of engaging with the victim with raising a pig and eventually “killing” it by scamming their money.

Chinese media have also summarized the usual opening line tactics from scammers’ texts, such as inquiring about a dog veterinarian or doctor’s appointment, having extra flowers to give out, wanting to “know you more” after being introduced by “Auntie Lee” or claiming that you previously met at a church, business or school reunion event.

Some scammers directly send photos of attractive men and women, claiming to be those individuals and asking to chat.

Stay Alert

Denise Oki, an attorney from the Federal Trade Commission’s Bay Area office, asked members of the Asian community to stay alert and look out for one another.

“Even if a scammer has not reached you in particular,“ she said, “they might reach your family, your neighbor and your community members.”

Oki said the scammer may pretend to be a government official, like a representative from the Internal Revenue Service. If they are targeting elders, they may pretend to be a caregiver or a grandchild asking to wire money for emergencies.

She urged the public to be extra cautious when noticing these red flags: asking for valuables, cash, cryptocurrency, gift cards, etc.

David Chiu, San Francisco city attorney, said these scams are not new, but the form has changed over time. “Blessing scammers” have long preyed on senior Asian women in San Francisco.

City Attorney David Chiu, wearing a suit and tie, looks on in front of the City Attorney's official seal and an American flag.
San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu stands behind a speaker at a press meeting at City Hall. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Chiu pointed out that many victimized community members may feel shamed or embarrassed, choosing to blame themselves instead of reporting the incident. But he emphasized that city and federal agencies can only move forward with the investigation if they have evidence of wrongdoing, so the reporting is essential.

“We are here to say, ‘No, it’s not your fault,’” Chiu said. “You are a victim of fraud and scam. You need justice done.”

Han Li can be reached at