As Chinese New Year looms, San Francisco officials warn of scams

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- In about two weeks, the celebrations for the start of the Chinese lunar New Year will begin in San Francisco and although the holiday represents a festive and happy time, the observation has proven to be a prime time for scam artists. 

City officials are warning those who live in Chinatown to not be duped by extortion plots or blessing scams that tend to spike this time of year. San Francisco police, the district attorney's office and Chinese community leaders have started passing out fliers to Chinatown businesses to warn them about potential con artists.

City leaders met recently to warn residents on how now to be victimized.

"When I started as a supervisor 16 years ago, extortion at this time of year was a prevalent reality," said Board of Supervisor Aaron Peskin. 

Police say Chinese gangsters would threaten local merchants and would leave a plant as a sign for them to pay extortion fees.

"They'd say you owe me $300, $500 or $1,000 for protection,"  said police Capt. David Lazar. 

"It was not uncommon that you (would) hear (someone) ask (an) owner for money or someone would come in and bring you a potted plant or pottery and ask you for rent," said Sarah Wan, who works at the Chinatown Community Youth Center. "And (if) you don't (pay) they do something funny to disturb your business."

The crooks were able to perpetuate the extortion because police say many Chinese businesses would not report the crime.  

"There are cultural issues and there are issues with people's immigration status and so they believe reporting a crime will subject them to deportation," interim Police Chief Toney Chaplin said.

The city's sanctuary city law would deter such a deportation, however. And law enforcement officers are encouraging would-be victims to come forward and report criminal behavior even if they are not legal citizens of the U.S.

Lazar said there was not reported case of extortion in Chinatown last year. But so-called blessings scams still exist. 

District Attorney George Gascon said elderly Chinese women tend to be victims of those type of crimes. 

"They were giving up their life savings sometimes," he said, adding that his office has successfully prosecuted offenders for that type of crime.

The scam involves perpetrators who claim they can ward off evil spirits by saying a blessing over the victim's gold and money, which is contained in a bag. When the victim closes their eyes, the thief swaps it for an empty bag and makes off with the person's valuables.

"We had a woman who worked in janitorial services at a restaurant for over 20 years, saving for the education of her child," Gascon said. "She had about $20,000 (and) this is someone who's been working for minimum wage all her life and she gave up her entire life savings in a blessings scam."

Police say once the thief has taken the money and valuables, it is nearly impossible for police to reclaim the lost loot. Police say citizens should celebrate the Chinese New Year but they should be wary of potential scams. 

By KTVU reporter Tara Moriarty.