How does this stuff happen?
Such curse threats are common and prey on superstition and cultural beliefs of the community.
The victim is not identified in this case but similar stories are repeated around the world as criminal rings target elderly Asian women who are fearful of evil spirits and curses.
In 2013, Brooklyn neighborhoods experienced a rash of scammers who pulled a "cultural bait and switch" on citizens of Asian communities. Unsuspecting women were approached and asked to hand over their money to help the stranger or else they would be cursed. The thieves get away with whatever valuables they can.
In Turkey, in 2012, a psychic netted $120,000 liras with a switch of bags containing valuables. The psychic prays over the items to remove the curse and then hands back a similar bag telling the victim not to open it until she is home. Then the victim realizes she's been conned.
This trick, called the "blessings scam" was also uncovered in Monterey Park, California, where, again, the Asian community was targeted by "psychic healers" who told the victims the curse-removal prayer would not work unless they kept the bag closed for a few days, after which, the fraudsters had skipped town.
Even in Scotland, in 2013, the same ethnic targeting occurred. The police know that each victim is targeted because of her ethnicity and faith. She believes that blessing her valuables will bring her family good luck. Victims readily hand over their jewelry and valuables with the best intentions of helping their loved ones - a ubiquitous and devious means of exploitation.
San Francisco Weekly published a thorough piece on the practice, also called a "ghost scam", that was targeting Cantonese women of the city. The scammers appeared friendly, spoke their language and encouraged the victim to join them in a visit to a great healer who could help them, too. One woman, Susan Yuan, had been convinced by the magical healer that her son was in danger from evil spirits; only she could rescue him. She followed instructions, gathering about $47,000 worth of cash and valuables. Returning to the healer, a ceremony was performed and she was handed back the bag with additional instructions. Feeling she did the right thing, but scared that it wasn't enough to protect her son from danger, she did not know the bag contained just apples and water bottles.
Police in San Fran were aware of this network of scammers. They began public awareness campaigns in potentially vulnerable communities. District Attorney George Gascón held community meetings, press conferences, and video reenactments as well as taking out bus ads, and handing out tote bags that said ""Beware of Blessing Scams". Some women saw the warnings; Susan Yuan did not. At the same time as Yuan was involved in the exchange with the "healer", police had been informed of the activity. They caught Yuan's thief, literally, holding the bag. The D.A. was excited that the education campaign appears to have been successful as it led to more arrests.
The same type of direct outreach was used in Queens, New York City, as law enforcement personnel hand out info to people on the streets and in nursing homes. They also take out ad time on Chinese TV stations serving the area.
Asian-American studies professor at San Francisco State University, Jonathan H.X. Lee, said it's not that these people are stupid, it's part of their cultural system and they feel obligated as a parent to protect their children and family. Assembling valuables for a blessing is not an unusual practice in a culture where currency is used in good luck charms. People leave offerings of valuables to appease evil spirits. The scammers capitalized on their familiarity with these customs and took advantage of social trust. Often, it is clear that the scammers are repeat offenders, wanted for the same crimes several times over. Helping them get away with it is the embarrassment the victims feel about their loss so that they do not report the crimes.
Making people aware of a potential scam is an excellent means to prevent it and inoculate a community against infiltration from similar criminal activity. While it is shameful to erode the trust in one's own culture, members of these communities now realize it pays to be skeptical.