Blessing scams – in which small groups of fraudsters take advantage of elderly citizens, promising blessings of protection and, in the process, ridding the mark of their valuables – have provided mostly mainland criminal gangs with easy pickings in Hong Kong for two decades, and their frequency is rising alarmingly: the number of reported cases leapt more than seven-fold from 2016 to 2017.
Police figures provided to Post Magazine show that the number of reported cases shot up from eight cases involving HK$540,000 in 2016 to 57 cases and the loss of HK$7.09 million in cash and valuables last year.
In the first two months of 2018 (the most recent months for which data is available), there were eight cases involving losses of HK$1.08 million.
Since 2012, such scams have seen victims fleeced out of more than HK$19.5 million in cash and valuables in 170 cases reported to police. Real losses are believed to be substantially higher as many of the mostly elderly victims are too ashamed and embarrassed to report offences.
Blessing scams first surfaced in Hong Kong at around the turn of the millennium. In 2001, more than 300 elderly people were cheated out of HK$22 million. In 2004, victims suffered losses of more than HK$20 million.
Police say many of the blessing gangs – often operating in groups of three or four, and mostly female – come from the mainland. The trend has coincided with the opening up of Hong Kong to more visitors from southern mainland provinces.
A police campaign using loudspeaker announcements in shopping malls, and the busting and jailing of culprits, contributed to a falling off in reported cases from 2006 onwards, but the number of gangs operating in the city appears to have surged again in recent years.
In February, Hong Kong’s District Court increased from two years to 3.5 years the jail sentence imposed on mainland woman Qin Fengluan, 54, who in May last year cheated a 77-year-old woman out of HK$60,000 and 3,000 yuan, as well as a gold necklace and a jade pendant.
Qin approached the victim as she was on her way to a wet market and told her that her son was ill and would run into misfortune unless a ritual was carried out by a “spiritual doctor” she knew. Qin then called in two accomplices who conducted a fake ritual, pretending to wrap the valuables in a plastic bag before handing it to the victim and telling her not to open it for two weeks.
When the woman got home, noticing that the bag was lighter, she discovered that her money and jewellery had been switched with a few bottles of water. Qin was arrested the next day but her two accomplices were never caught.
A police spokesperson advised elderly people to be alert to anyone who approached them in the street, never to trust strangers and to talk to family members before making any decisions to withdraw money from a bank or fetch cash and jewellery from home.
Police have tried to raise awareness by posting crime prevention messages on online platforms and through electronic media, distributing leaflets and posters, and hosting public talks at elderly homes and community centres. “Members from Junior Police Call, Senior Police Call, non-government organisations, District Fight Crime Committees and District Councils have participated in the publicity campaigns,” the spokesperson said. “Anti-scam messages are also disseminated to the public through various platforms.”
The effectiveness of online campaigns in reaching superstitious and social media-resistant elderly victims is questionable, however. A YouTube video, posted in September 2013 and showing a re-enacted blessing-scam scenario, has been viewed less than 900 times at the time of writing.