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Chinese immigrant loses lifetime savings in ‘blessing scam’

A person in a black jacket stands on a street with parked cars, viewed through blurry foliage.
Vickie Wong, 68, stands near the Noriega Street area where she said she lost life savings to a “blessing scam.” | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

On a chilly afternoon in San Francisco, Vickie Wong was on her way home, unaware that she was about to lose her life savings.

The 68-year-old Chinese immigrant and longtime Sunset District resident was walking down the street when she was suddenly approached by three middle-aged Cantonese-speaking women. The strangers successfully persuaded her to bring out her valuables from home for a “blessing ceremony” by insisting she was “cursed.” During the ceremony, the scammers surreptitiously switched out the bag containing Wong's $50,000 worth of gold and over $1,000 in cash with another.

“I think I was almost hypnotized so I completely trusted them at the time,” Wong told The Standard. “I ‘woke up’ hours later and found out it’s a scam.”

This latest “blessing scam” incident, which happened March 27, shocked law enforcement after a handful of similar cases since late last year. This type of scam has been repeatedly perpetrated in the  Chinese community, and the demographic of all the victims has been similar—superstitious, monolingual older women.

The District Attorney’s Office has started an education campaign to raise awareness in the Chinese community. But the situation isn’t new—such scams have popped up in San Francisco’s Chinese community for years.

Prior cases show that the scammers are sometimes Chinese citizens with visas who travel around U.S. Chinese communities to find victims, which makes it difficult for law enforcement to make arrests. The blessing scams stopped almost entirely during the pandemic, but now that tourism has resumed, some of the same scammers are believed to be back.

“Unscrupulous scammers are back trying to defraud vulnerable victims in our city,” said District Attorney Brooke Jenkins. “My office will do everything we can to educate the public to prevent these incidents from happening, and also work to hold perpetrators accountable and ensure that they face consequences for their crimes.”

Wong is now receiving victim services from both the District Attorney’s Office and the San Francisco Police Department. Her story was reported first by the Chinese press, and she agreed to join law enforcement officials for a merchant walk to get the word out about the scams. Mayor London Breed, Police Chief Bill Scott and Jenkins have been visiting different Chinese senior housing sites to host forums and explain the scams.

A group of masked seniors gather outdoors; a central figure in purple seems to be speaking or gesturing.
Anni Chung, the president and CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly, said there are more than 60 seniors who have fallen prey to blessing scams. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Anni Chung, the CEO of the Self-Help for the Elderly, an Asian community-based senior service group, said that over 60 seniors are recorded to have fallen prey to these scams in the past and said blessing scams are the “biggest nightmare” for Chinese seniors.

It’s unclear how many incidents have been reported since last year. However, because some Chinese immigrants may feel ashamed of losing large amounts of money to scammers, opting to not report the loss to police, the true number of victims may be much higher than reports would indicate. 

The scamming tactics

A week after she was scammed, Wong revisited the site of the “blessing” and showed The Standard what exactly happened.

At the corner of busy Noriega Street, Wong said that the first woman who approached her asked where to find a “famous doctor” because her daughter was “possessed.” Wong said she didn’t know, but then a second woman showed up and said that she knew where the doctor was, leading them on a walk to a relatively quiet residential area.

During the conversation, a third woman walked over and claimed to be the granddaughter-in-law of the famous doctor, saying the doctor would help “purify” the “possessed” daughter. Then she walked away.

The scam worked like this: Unbeknownst to Wong, as the first two women were talking to her, they were also secretly recording their conversation. During their chat, they asked Wong personal questions like her name and her age. Wong didn't know it at the time, but the third woman was secretly listening in the whole time. So when the third woman came back and claimed the “possessed” daughter of the first woman was now saved, she also said the famous doctor knew about Wong’s personal life—making Wong believe that the doctor had power.

Then, the third woman—the alleged granddaughter-in-law of the doctor—told Wong the doctor said she was in trouble.

The third woman told Wong that she had once stepped on the blood of a fatal car crash victim, putting a curse on her whole family. The only way to get rid of the bad spirits, she said, was to bring out some raw rice along with all the cash and gold at her home for a blessing ceremony.

A person's pointing hand, colorful houses, a parked car, and a tree-lined sidewalk.
Vickie Wong points at the area near Noreiga Street where she said she was victimized by the blessing scammers. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Wong followed suit and brought out the valuables. The third woman put the valuables in a black bag and started the ceremony. During the ceremony, she switched the bag with another black bag of similar weight without Wong’s knowledge. After the ceremony, she asked Wong to go home and not to open the bag for a couple of days.

A few hours after she returned home, Wong realized she had been scammed. She opened the bag and found some bottled water, baby wipes and other non-valuables. She reported the incident to the police that night.

The scam seems similar to other ones previously documented in the press. It always starts with someone looking for a “famous doctor,” and someone claiming the targeted victim was cursed or has health issues that the doctor can help cure.

On Wednesday, the police department announced that they arrested a male suspect in Los Angeles linked to two January scam incidents in San Francisco. Wong’s case is still under investigation.

As the investigation plays out, Wong’s goal is to tell her story to help prevent others from being scammed.

“I hope the city leaders will put out more signs or have more police cars in the Chinese community,” Wong said in Cantonese, “to deter the scammers and warn the community about this type of scam.”

Han Li can be reached at