The scams all begin with some variation of the same opening line: "Excuse me, grandma, do you know Dr. Wong?"
The name is irrelevant; the language almost always Cantonese. The victims are lone, elderly Chinese women.
"No, I don't know anyone by that name," is the typical response.
But then, a supposed passerby joins the conversation: "Did you mention Dr. Wong? He's amazing. He can exorcise demons. As a matter of fact, that's Dr. Wong's granddaughter right over there."
Before long, the elderly victim is surrounded by fast-talking scam artists. Sometimes, the "spiritual doctor" is among them and informs the victim he can see evil spirits around her. In fact, her children might be in imminent danger – unless, of course, the doctor blesses her money and jewellery.
The scam has ensnared at least 13 victims in Vancouver so far, according to police. They go home, or to the bank, and return with a bag of valuables – sometimes their life savings – to be "blessed." During the phony prayer, the scammers swap the bag with an identical one filled with worthless items and tell the victim not to open it for a period of time.
Working with police agencies across North America, including the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the U.S. Secret Service, Vancouver police have identified several suspects and persons of interests. Meanwhile, the CBSA confirms it arrested five foreign nationals last month for "organized criminality" in relation to the scam. They were boarding a flight destined for Hong Kong at the time and are now being processed under Canadian immigration law.
The blessing scam has been prevalent in Asia for many years. In Vancouver, scam artists typically target older immigrants, who might be particularly religious and less educated – "the old-time Chinese folks," said Sergeant Joe Chu of the Vancouver Police Department's Financial Crime Unit.
"You've got certain cultural beliefs and superstitions and they know how to play on it, because the suspects are all Chinese themselves," he said. "If there's an evil spirit, you've got to do something about it. And then they tie in the fact that one of your family members is going to die. That just overwhelms the old lady."
Scam artists target Chinese immigrants for many reasons, with an obvious one being the language barrier, Sgt. Chu said. (He notes the Chinese Community Policing Centre in Chinatown has Cantonese- and Mandarin-speaking officers.) But there is also the large cultural emphasis on "saving face," as well as a distrust of authorities, including police.
Vancouver police have since recovered "hundreds of pieces of gold jewellery, jade bracelets, necklaces and watches" but cannot return the items without victims coming forward, Sgt. Chu said. Investigators believe the group of scammers travelled across Canada and there may be victims out east.
The blessing scam is not the only way in which elderly Chinese victims are being targeted. VPD Constable Wes Fung, who works at the Chinese Community Policing Centre, said there have been at least a half dozen incidents in the past few months in which elderly men and women were knocked down and robbed.
"I think with a lot of Chinese seniors, there's a perception that they're easy prey, because they don't want to get involved, they're meek, they're mild and they're weak – that's the perception," Constable Fung said. "These suspects are cowards, which is why they target vulnerable people."
Meanwhile, the Fraser Health Authority is mailing letters to some of the 1,500 patients of a rogue dentist who worked out of a bedroom in his Burnaby home. Tung Sheng Wu, who has never been registered as a dentist, is believed to have worked illegally since at least the 1990s, relying on word-of-mouth referrals, particularly in the Chinese community.
Mr. Wu's practice did not meet the College of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia's requirements for infection prevention and control, and the health authority issued an alert recommending anyone who has been treated by him to be tested for blood-borne viruses including hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. It is not know if his patients were aware he was practising illegally.
"Sometimes people who are new to Canada may not realize that dentists – or doctors, or other health-care professionals – must be licensed to practice and must demonstrate that they are qualified and competent to practise," said CDSBC spokeswoman Anita Wilks.