A third woman arrested in connection with a blessing scam that targeted Chinese-speaking San Franciscans acted as a lookout while the other suspects stole victims’ cash and valuables, prosecutors said Monday in court. Juan Li, 62, of Rosemead was arrested last month in connection with the scam, which, according to police, is an ongoing issue in the city’s Chinese community.
During Li’s arraignment on Monday, she pleaded not guilty to the charges against her, which include, among others, several counts of grand theft as well as extortion.
In court, prosecutor Phoebe Maffei said Li worked with at least three other women suspects, acting as the lookout while the others performed the scam.
Two of those suspects, Mudi Wu and Fuxi Dai, both of China and both listed as 51 years old in jail records, were arrested at the Los Angeles International Airport on Christmas Eve as they were allegedly attempting to flee to Hong Kong, according to police.
Both remain in custody in San Francisco and have pleaded not guilty to multiple charges, including grand theft, extortion and elder abuse. A fourth suspect, who according to prosecutors is Li’s sister, reportedly fled to China the day before Wu and Dai were arrested, Maffei said.
Investigators used surveillance images to connect Li to the scam, Maffei said.
Li’s attorney, Lisa Dewberry, pointed out that Li, who has lived in the U.S. for five years, has no prior convictions.
Judge Rita Lin, however, set bail at $250,000, reasoning that Li is a flight risk, considering that one suspect has already fled the country and two others attempted to.
According to police, the suspects swindled nearly $200,000 from at least five victims in San Francisco late last year.
The scams involved as many as four people who work together to target elderly non-English speaking women of Chinese descent by convincing the victims that a loved one, usually a son, is in danger. The scammers then allegedly offer to perform a blessing ceremony, which involves the offering of cash and other valuables.
During the ceremony, the offering is placed in a bag, and when the so-called blessing occurs, the victim’s money and valuables are secretly taken. The victim is then instructed to leave without looking inside the bag, effectively defrauding the person.
Following the arrest of Wu and Dai, prosecutors said that blessing scams in the city appeared to be declining, with only two reported in 2014, but they now appear to be on the rise.
Anyone who may have been a victim of a blessing scam is encouraged to report it to police or the district attorney’s fraud hotline at (415) 551-9595.