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In cities, including Chicago, New York and San Francisco, elderly women in Chinese neighborhoods are becoming the victims of a peculiar financial crime. The so-called blessing scam convinces victims to have their valuables prayed over or face terrible tragedy.

From member station KQED in San Francisco, Mina Kim explains.

MINA KIM, BYLINE: The day scammers targeted Kon Ying Wong, she was shopping for vegetables at a San Francisco farmers market. Wong says it all began when a woman with a bandaged hand called out to her.

KON YING WONG: (Through translator) Hey, elder sister. Hey, elder sister. Do you know of a Chinese herbalist doctor who's selling his herbs here?

KIM: Wong told the woman she knew of no such person, when a second woman approached, claiming to know the doctor.

WONG: (Through translator) My mother-in-law suffered a stroke, and that doctor cured her, and that doctor just lives close by here.

KIM: Wong says the two women convinced her that she should meet the doctor, too. As they walked, they asked Wong many personal questions.

WONG: (Through translator) So I told them about my family, the number of sons I have, my mother-in-law, my husband.

KIM: Then they ran into a third woman, who claimed to be the doctor's granddaughter. She took one look at Wong and said great misfortune would befall her family. Wong's husband would fall ill, and her youngest son would die in three days. Wong panicked. The woman assured her that her grandfather, the doctor, could help. Wong just had to gather all the cash and jewelry she could.

WONG: (Through translator) I was so scared that I wanted to kneel down on the ground to beg for the doctor to help me.

KIM: The scam on Kon Ying Wong is called the blessing scam. Elderly Chinese women place their valuables in a bag that the thieves swap out for an identical bag as they give the fake blessing. They then tell the women not to open the bag for days.

The crime is effective because it plays on popular superstitions in Chinese culture, says Edith Chan with the city's Adult Protective Services. Chan works with scam victims.

EDITH CHAN: Some of them mentioned that they actually couldn't go to sleep to the point that they have to take sleeping pills. At least one person mentioned that she's afraid to go back to the same neighborhood.

GEORGE GASCON: There were huge emotional injuries, and obviously devastating economic injuries.

KIM: That's San Francisco district attorney George Gascon. He says more than 50 people have reported being scammed in the city over the last year.

GASCON: These suspects understand the vulnerabilities within this particular community, and they're abusing, or they're certainly taking advantage of that.

KIM: Gascon has been advising New York City on prosecuting cases there. And he's launched a public awareness campaign to alert potential victims using bus ads, tote bags and the ethnic media.

WONG: (Foreign language spoken)

KIM: For Kon Ying Wong, that outreach made a difference. As she rushed home that day to get her jewelry and money, Wong says she stopped.

WONG: (Through translator) All of a sudden, I looked up at the sky, and it's almost like a moment of clarity. And at that point I remembered, I read about it in the newspaper and I've seen this in the news before.

KIM: So Wong headed straight to the police station. And soon authorities captured the scammers.

WONG: (Through translator) Us Chinese people, we work really hard to save up our money, and I was just very happy that I was able to help somebody.

KIM: City officials gave Wong an award recently. But she says she doesn't feel like a hero, just lucky that the heavens took care of her.

For NPR News, I'm Mina Kim, in San Francisco.

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