Ghost Stories: Scams Targeting S.F.'s Cantonese Community Reveal the Terrible Power of Belief

San Francisco Weekly/June 5, 2013

An evil spirit was going to kill Susan Yuan's youngest son and only she could save him. She walked quickly, terrified by the revelation. This had all happened so fast.

Less than an hour ago, the 51-year-old's biggest concern on the afternoon of Nov. 10 was shopping for fruit. The market was bustling as Yuan browsed the aisles, passing tents selling strawberries, peaches, bean sprouts, eggplants, red peppers, and loaves of bread. She smelled roasted ducks hanging from hooks and flowers in plastic buckets. There were men unloading meat from the back of trucks and women packing bags of fresh fish and cabbage heads into metal carts.

So much to take in that Yuan barely noticed the woman in the gray knit hat.

"Excuse me," the woman said in Cantonese. "Do you know where I can find this great herbalist doctor, Dr. Chan?"

Yuan said that she did not know.

"Oh, I know Dr. Chan," came a voice behind Yuan. A woman with a bandage around her hand had apparently overheard the question. Bandaged Hand explained that he had healed her mother after a stroke three years ago.

The two women told Yuan that she should join them to meet the doctor. Yuan agreed. She felt a connection to them. They spoke her language. They were fellow immigrants from the Canton region of China. They were generous enough to introduce her to the great doctor. And this Dr. Chan sounded like a man worth meeting. So the trio made their way out of the market. As they walked, they talked about their families. Yuan's two new acquaintances asked her all sorts of questions — how many children she had, where she lived, how long she had been in America. Soon, Bandaged Hand led them down a small residential side street, where they encountered a middle-aged man on the sidewalk.

He introduced himself as Dr. Chan's grandson. The doctor, he said, was out of town. But the grandson had his own reputation. The women told Yuan that he had "Yin-Yang eyes," which gave him the ability to interact with the spiritual realm — the Chinese version of a shaman. He focused his attention on her. Yuan was impressed that he somehow knew how many children she had, and how many people lived in her home.

But then his face turned serious. He sensed that she had recently hit a stretch of bad luck. The cause, he explained, was an evil spirit that had been following her family. The spirit had attached itself to her youngest son and intended to bring him into the afterlife. Yuan's son, the doctor's grandson declared, would die in a car accident within three days.

Yuan's stomach twisted. In one sense, she felt lucky — only a person with Yin-Yang eyes could have made this discovery. But fate had also been harsh. Evil spirits don't need much of a reason to enter a life. The random ghosts are the most feared. They roam in the world of the living, picking their marks. They can possess anyone, at any time, for any reason. And only certain special rituals, conducted by a shaman, could exorcise the ghost.

The grandson tried to calm Yuan. Don't worry, he told her, there is a way to save your son.

So, not an hour later, Yuan was rummaging through her home, seeking the ingredients for a purification ceremony. She grabbed a bag of rice. She gathered every bit of jewelry she could find. She snagged a bundle of cash. She wrapped the items separately in newspaper. All of it went into a small black bag.

She took a bus to her bank. She opened her safe deposit box, taking out $10,000 in cash and some gold and jade jewelry pieces. She visited a second bank, where she took out another $10,000 and more jewelry. She withdrew another $3,000 from an ATM.

The doctor's grandson had told her that the purification ceremony's chances of success increased with every dollar. So Yuan was not leaving any bill unturned. As she hopped into a cab outside the bank, she carried her entire life savings — around $47,000 — wrapped in newspaper in that black bag.

Yuan met the grandson in a vacant lot just east of the market. The two other women were also there. The grandson took the items from Yuan's bag and placed each one in a small black plastic bag. He then put those into a larger fabric bag. He handed this bag to Yuan and the ceremony began.

With his hands over the valuables, the man with the Yin-Yang eyes proclaimed in Cantonese, "Ghost will not follow your son. Your son will not die. Your son will not be involved in a car accident. Ghost will not harm your son." He repeated the words. And then he told Yuan to turn around and face the sun. He handed her a bottle of water to wash her face with, and she handed him the fabric bag, which he passed along to one of the other women watching from a few feet away. As Yuan washed her face, the man restated the invocation. Everything will be peaceful, he told Yuan, all will be safe. The ceremony was over. The man returned the fabric bag to Yuan.

But things were not all clear yet, he said. She had to follow certain directions to ensure the process worked: She must tell no one about this ceremony; she must not look back at him when she walked away; and she must not open the bag until she got home. Fail to complete any of these steps, the doctor's grandson said, and your son will die.

The man traced some shape on Yuan's back. This is for protection, he said. And then they parted ways.

Yuan was still holding back tears as she got on the bus to begin the trek from the Alemany Farmers' Market to her Sunset District home. Would it work? Was it enough?

She did not yet know that there was a tragedy in her future, that a transformation had occurred. She did not yet know that the bag she held contained only apples and water bottles.

And then a policeman walked up and told her to get off the bus.

Beginning in March 2012, a peculiar type of fraud struck San Francisco's Chinese community. Dubbed "ghost scams" or "blessing scams," the crimes captured headlines for both their strangeness and heartlessness: Con artists targeted elderly Cantonese women, exploiting their cultural beliefs and duty to protect their children.

In the year since, more reports have popped up all over the globe: Boston, New York City, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas, and Melbourne, among others. But San Francisco has been hit the hardest. More than 50 victims have filed reports. The District Attorney's office calculates that around $1.5 million in money and property has been stolen. Three suspects were arrested in May 2012, but the thefts continued. Four more were arrested in November. Another in January. And by spring 2013, the District Attorney's office was prosecuting three ghost scam cases against a total of eight defendants. San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr said that he believed a crime ring was responsible.

The scams worked because they zeroed in on belief. Warding off evil spirits is a major component of popular Chinese religion, a modern composite of Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and various indigenous beliefs. Statues and pictures of gods stand on altars in homes. Families rearrange furniture to ensure Feng Shui's optimal flow of energy. Families visit fortune-tellers seeking explanations for unfortunate events. And parents feel an obligation to protect their children from evil spirits, a mindset academics call "filial piety."

"It's not surprising that an older Chinese woman would fall victim to this scam because of her cultural system," says Jonathan H.X. Lee, an Asian American studies professor at San Francisco State University. "They're not doing it because they're stupid. They're doing it because of this very deep sense of filial piety, of their duty as a parent."

Assembling valuables for a blessing did not raise red flags for the women because currency plays an important role in their beliefs. On Chinese New Year, people exchange red envelopes filled with money, craft fans out of dollar bills, and construct money trees with leaves of cash. During the annual Hungry Ghost Festival, when the gates of the spiritual realm are said to open, people leave offerings of gold inside their homes for their ancestors and silver outside for evil spirits. At funerals, loved ones burn fake money as offerings to the deceased, to ensure their protection from the beyond.

"The surviving family would purchase paper money, paper clothes, cars, and other material goods to assist the newly dead transition to 'life' in the other realm," says Lee. "This is why the family will need to make regular offerings to their ancestors, in order to help them live in the other realm. If not, they become hungry, and poor, and can potentially turn on their living family."

Currency, then, is required for a transaction with the spirits. And, naturally, the greater the offering, the better the chances of winning the spirits' favors. So in the Chinese culture, money's value extends beyond this mortal coil.

Around the world, the practice of maintaining ties to the spiritual realm has generated an industry. Walk down Chinatown and you'll see dozens of storefronts offering fortune-telling or selling the tools required for traditional rituals. There are opportunities for profit in the big business of religious worship. And the ghost scammers knew it.

But while the particulars of the con might appear foreign and bizarre to Westerners, its basic elements are familiar: preying on belief and desperation. Like the woman from the online dating site who asks her virtual beau to send $500 to help cover the costs of her sick mother's hospital bills, or the Craigslist landlord who just needs a security deposit wired over before he can show the apartment, the scammer gains the mark's trust with a story the mark wants to accept, then pitches a transaction the mark cannot bear to reject.

For the marks, the signs of the scam become painfully obvious in hindsight. After Tru Tran, 63, was fleeced in March 2012, she was so ashamed that she waited a day before breaking the news to her family. All the jewelry in the house was gone, many of which were family heirlooms, passed down at least four generations. Cash was gone too: $1,000 of Tran's money, plus $19,000 that her 32-year-old son Brandon To was saving for his October wedding.

To was frustrated and confused. He'd worked hard for that money, fixing refrigerators for restaurants and working at a milk plant in Petaluma. More than anything though, he worried for his mother. Over the next few weeks, he noticed that she lost her appetite. He heard her pacing up and down the hallway in the middle of the night because she was unable to sleep for more than 30 minutes at a time.

To knew that his mother was no fool. Over two decades, she'd built herself and her family a comfortable life in San Francisco. To's grandparents had fled China during the Japanese invasion of the 1930s. They started a life in Vietnam, where Tran was raised and To was born. When To was eight, his mother and father immigrated to America. They brought their culture with them, finding a community full of others who shared their beliefs.

"It's probably hard for a lot of people to understand how someone could fall for something like this," To says. "I know I couldn't believe it at first. It was just so strange."

And because it was so strange, To and his five brothers figured that there was no use going to police. "We thought they wouldn't believe us," he says. A month after the crime, though, the San Francisco Police Department announced that it had become aware of the scam spree. To and his family heard the news on TV and, soon after, Tran went to the station to file a report.

As the list of victims grew longer, the city launched a public awareness campaign to educate people about the scam. The police department hosted community meetings, filmed public service announcements, and reached out to local Chinese news media. The District Attorney's office posted bus ads and held press conferences telling people to be wary of anybody asking them to put money in a bag in exchange for a blessing. More than 400 people showed up to a recent awareness event in Chinatown's Portsmouth Square, where representatives from the city and the DA's office, accompanied by interpreters, detailed the crime. They passed out tote bags reading "Beware of Blessing Scams." Attendees were so eager to spread the word that they all but mobbed Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian, the brave soul with the stack of bags in his arms. "Calm down! Be cool!" one of the event's security guards shouted, as patrons grabbed the free merchandise, sometimes from each other.

The public, it seemed, had been effectively informed.

Kin Ying Wong, 60, saw one of those public service announcements. And, on the morning of Nov. 10, while she was hustling home from the Alemany Farmers' Market to gather money and jewelry for a purification ceremony, she remembered the details of the scam. So she went instead to the Ingleside Police Station. (At about that same time, a woman in a gray knit hat was approaching Susan Yuan as she shopped for fruit in the market.)

SFPD officers decided that an eight-man surveillance team would watch Wong return to the market and meet with the suspects.

So, an hour after Wong met with police, a police officer sat in his undercover car, parked in the lot east of the market. He saw a strange scene unfold. A few feet from his car, a man stood behind a woman, rubbing her back with his hands. He then waved his hand over her. She walked away, toward the bus stop, without looking back. That was Susan Yuan. A few seconds later, the man turned and walked toward the center of the market. After a few paces, he broke into a sprint.

The officer followed the man from the lot. The man raced toward a cab, to which three women were also running. One of them carried a black fabric bag. They'd barely slammed the doors when the officer pulled up behind the car, siren blaring. Several other officers arrived. They pulled the four suspects out of the taxi and detained them. In the car's backseat, the officer found the fabric bag. Inside was $47,000 cash and a pile of jewelry.

At that moment, another officer was on the bus, telling Yuan that that there were no valuables in the bag she held, but that they had stopped the thieves. This was a lot to absorb for Yuan, still rattled from the thought of her son dying. But when the officer took her to the suspects, she positively identified them. The foursome was booked and charged with grand theft and extortion.

Six months later, the foursome became the first ghost scam suspects in the country to stand trial. Assistant District Attorney Michael Sullivan laid out a straightforward narrative for the jury: The defendants were professional scam artists who had been committing the con all around the world. He noted that police officers founds dozens of unused black plastic bags in their Whitcomb Hotel room, the same sort of bags that contained Yuan's valuables in the cab. Police also found thousands of dollars in cash in their luggage.

Sullivan pointed out the stamps in the defendants' passports. In the five years before they were arrested in San Francisco, the four suspects — Yachang Lei, Yannu Tan, Mudi Wu, and Yonghua Zeng — traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia, to Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei, and Cambodia. Lei made 16 total trips, Wu made 17, Tan made five, and Zeng made nine. Some of those trips overlapped. The nation-hopping, Sullivan argued, was for neither business nor pleasure, but for crime.

The case seemed open and shut, particularly because the defendants did not deny their participation in the farmers' market theft. But they had a story that explained everything.

An organized crime ring in China was the true culprit, the defense team argued, and, in fact, the defendants themselves were victims — victims of human trafficking, coerced into committing the theft by crime bosses who threatened to kill their families. Their attorneys made the case that the defendants should be acquitted because they had no legal alternatives to prevent the murder of a child, that they committed their crimes out of legal necessity. As defense attorney Samuel Lasser explained in court: "You can do this scam or you can collect your son's corpse in China."

The accused claimed that, like the scam victims, they were tricked into foolish actions by the desperation to protect their loved ones.

China's Guangdong Province sits at the southeastern tip of the mainland. Because of its access to the ocean and its proximity to Hong Kong's affluence, the region has become a base of operations for Triads — Chinese mafia groups.

In 1999, the government executed eight Triad members from the region, in an effort to send a message. Yet eight years later, a government court investigation reported that organized crime groups in Guangdong were growing bigger and more sophisticated. One Guangdong Triad faction reportedly won over the services of a local Communist Party chief with bribes totaling more than 12 million Hong Kong dollars. In addition to selling drugs, counterfeiting money, and extorting businesses, the Triads have their hands deep in the lending industry. In the absence of a strong private banking system in China, the Triads have stepped in as go-to sources for loans — for investors, entrepreneurs, and gamblers alike. Their business model rests on ruthlessness — charging high interest rates and doling out harsh penalties for those who could not repay their debts — but also convenience.

Which is how the four defendants say they got caught up in the scam operation. At the April trial, they each took the stand, placed their hands on the Bible, and told their stories.

They said they grew up in poor, rural farming villages in Guangdong and quit school as children in order to work the fields. By early adulthood, though, each had found a semblance of financial stability, some working steady jobs, some opening up small businesses with their spouses.

But then husbands gambled away savings. Businesses failed. Investments tanked. Soon the Triad loan sharks came to collect money that the defendants could not pay. There were threats, and beatings, and kidnappings.

The defendants alleged that Triad enforcers threatened to kill their children if they did not pay back the loans by working for the organization in America. So, in November, after brief stays in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the four defendants arrived in San Francisco.

Their chaperone for the trip was a woman named Chi Mei Ng. And, on Nov. 8, in a room at the Whitcomb Hotel on Market Street, they said that Ng introduced them to their new jobs. She explained that they would tell "ghost stories." They spent the next day rehearsing.

On the morning of the 10th, a taxi driver working for Ng picked up the five of them from the hotel. After dropping off the scammers at the Alemany Farmers' Market, the cabbie drove Ng to a travel agency in Chinatown. The cab's security camera recorded their conversation. Ng explained that she was changing her return flight to L.A., from Dec. 12 to Nov. 11, and that she didn't want her four friends to know she was leaving earlier than planned. "I want you to help me lie a little bit," she told the cabbie in Cantonese. The cabbie brought Ng back to the Whitcomb, before heading back to the market that afternoon. Ng would be long gone by the time SFPD obtained a warrant to search the defendants' room the following day. (She has not been caught.)

But in the meantime, the defendants were running the scam at the farmers' market. They said in court that, petrified by the Triad threats, they had no choice. Saving their children took precedence over the sin of theft. They couldn't go to the police; how, after all, could SFPD protect their family when the Triads hunted them down across the Pacific Ocean? So they went over the script in their minds and honed in on their targets...

That, at least, is the story they wanted the 12 jurors to believe.

Sullivan, the prosecutor, recognized that the result of this case hinged on belief. Nearly all the relevant details supporting the defense team's legal necessity claim stemmed from defendants' testimonies — stories from thousands of miles away that could be neither confirmed nor refuted.

In his closing argument, Sullivan chipped away at any belief the jurors may have had in those stories. He reminded them that the defendants were here in the first place because they got somebody to believe in a story.

"The defendants," he said, "are these same people that lied to the people in this case, the same people that committed this scam. And they are lying now."

His point was simple: Don't let them fool you the way they fooled the victims.

"They made up a story," Sullivan said, "a story based on lies."

The jury believed Sullivan. After two weeks of deliberation, the jurors found Zeng guilty of grand theft, Wu guilty of attempted grand theft, and Tan and Lei guilty on both counts (they hung on the extortion charges). Judge Brendan Conroy would sentence Tan and Lei to two years and four months in jail, Zeng to two years, and Wu to one year.

As the jurors exited the courtroom following the May 9 verdict, they encountered reporters and lawyers curious about how they reached their conclusion. Jurors noted how the travel histories were suspicious, how the defendants didn't seem nervous in the footage of their cab ride to the market, how they gambled in Las Vegas and visited Universal Studios in Los Angeles. They noted the cash in the suitcases and the presence of the unused plastic bags. One juror summed it all up concisely: "We didn't believe them."

While the jury in the farmers' market case deliberated, another ghost scam case was reaching its conclusion. Another trio of defendants — who were arrested at San Francisco International Airport in May 2012, shortly before their scheduled flight to Hong Kong — were convicted of grand theft in a bench trial, in which a judge decides the verdict. In addition to those two successful prosecutions, the DA's office currently has another ghost scam case in its pre-trial stages.

In the 15 months since the scam wave hit the city, San Francisco authorities have successfully suppressed the con. Reports of the crime eased to a trickle, then eventually stopped altogether. While San Francisco was the first jurisdiction in America to prosecute the ghost scammers, other cities are following suit. Two of the defendants from the airport arrests will face charges in New York City upon their release. Two defendants from the Alemany Farmers' Market thefts are also set to be extradited after completing their jail terms: New York City issued arrest warrants for Yannu Tan, in connection with a scam there in July, and for Mudi Wu, in connection with an August scam; Wu is wanted in Los Angeles as well, for a scam in October.

A curious side effect of the ghost scams is the ways in which they have illuminated the customs of an insular community. As the scams are detailed in transcripts and news reports, they have brought San Francisco's Cantonese population into strange contact with the rest of the city.

At the recent sentencing hearing for the defendants in the airport case, more than two dozen spectators packed the courtroom. Most were elderly women, and nearly all were Chinese. The spectators chatted, oblivious to the bailiff asking the room for quiet. A Cantonese court interpreter rose from his seat behind the prosecution's table to convey the message. The crowd hushed. But when the interpreter told them to silence their cell phones, a few looked around with puzzled expressions. One woman called over the interpreter and handed him her phone. He pressed the power button to shut it down. Another woman did the same, and then another, and soon the interpreter was shuffling down the row, switching off the devices.

Brandon To and his mother, Tru Tran, were there, sitting in the front row. To's mother could not identify any of the suspects in a photo lineup. Perhaps her memory was clouded, or perhaps she was scammed by a different set of criminals altogether. Either way, because she was not an official victim in this case, she wouldn't touch any of the $17,000 in cash seized during the airport arrest. While more than 50 victims have filed reports, less than a dozen are eligible for compensation in any of the three cases.

Instead, Tran sat as a spectator as Judge Angela Bradstreet sentenced the defendants to two-plus years in jail.

The punishments did little to lift To's spirits. As he filed out of the courtroom with his mother, he thought about how he should have raised his hand and tried to speak up at the hearing, to make sure the defendants knew they had stolen more than money. They had stolen a generation's trust. A generation that congregated together in a foreign land, developing a community that took care of its own and keeping alive the customs of the ancestors.

"My mom was just doing what she thought was right at the time," To says. "It would have been different if somebody was home to talk to her."

The ghost scam was tailored to bewitch an older generation; it's safe to assume that when that generation passes, the ghost scam dies with it. Like the children of most first generation immigrants, To was always a step detached from that old world, growing up with one foot in a room filled with lunar calendars and the other foot in a room filled with Golden State Warriors memorabilia.

But then the ghost scammers erased that distance. And the traditions of his past shattered the modern life he had established.

The police have told To that they are still searching for more scammers, particularly any of the crime bosses higher up the food chain. But he is wary of false hope. The family heirlooms he had planned to give his fiancee are gone. So is the down payment for the wedding. The couple has postponed their marriage ceremony indefinitely.

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