Rising scams target elderly Bay Area Chinese


The letters “S,” “C,” “A,” and “M” appear on individual Scrabble-like tiles.

By Selen Ozturk
Ethnic Media Services Contributor

Scams targeting adults aged 60 and older are rising, with devastating consequences for monolingual Chinese in the Bay Area.

In 2023, $3.4 billion was lost nationwide by victims aged 60 and older to over two dozen types of scams, according to the FBI, up from $3.1 billion in 2022. This loss includes over 101,000 victim-filed reports, a 14% increase from 2022.

California leads all states for elder fraud in both dollar losses and number of victims, with reported losses topping $620 million across over 11,000 reports filed in 2023. As scams continue to rise, Bay Area Chinese elders are particularly at risk of losing their independence and quality of life.

At a June 6 Ethnic Media Services briefing, an FBI special agent, a San Francisco Police Department sergeant-inspector, a scam attorney and elder abuse prevention experts discussed why these scams are on the rise, real-life stories of victims and what people can do to prevent fraud.

Spotting common scams
The average elder fraud victim loses over $33,000, according to FBI data.

Among the most widespread forms of elder fraud are investment scams, said Robert Tripp, special agent in charge at the FBI San Francisco office — “and I don’t mean subtle corporate fraud, but high-risk, guaranteed-reward … It could start with an unsolicited email, call or text with an opportunity to get rich investing in lucrative opportunities like cryptocurrency.”

Alongside tech support and romance scams, another major form are impersonation scams “where people pretend to be a government official, either a U.S. official or a consular official from the People’s Republic of China, indicating that the person getting the call has to pay money,” he continued.

Tripp added that two fraud red flags to watch for are unsolicited calls or messages requesting money, and an urgency to these requests to pay money immediately: “If you don’t understand why you’re being asked to do something, don’t feel pressured to say yes.”

These scammers, who often gain victims’ trust by speaking their language, “normally work on a two to three-person team … and may be working off a debt to an organization due to gambling or borrowing money,” said Tony Flores, sergeant-inspector of the San Francisco Police Department Special Victims Unit.

He also urged against waiting to report a potential scam. “Reporting delays are dangerous,” he said.“We may lose information, surveillance resources, forensic evidence … if we can present a case to the U.S. attorney’s office, it’s not going to happen tomorrow. It’ll happen four to five years later. And they target the elderly because they’re banking that that person will not be around for a testimony by then.”

In San Francisco, over 42% of substantiated elder abuse case victims are Asian American. And while the AAPI community accounts for a third of city residents, reporting from the AAPI community itself is only 12% —  meaning “two-thirds of our community member victims never report the crimes,” said Anni Chung, president and CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly.

“We’re already very concerned that these financial scams are increasing,” she continued, “and with AI deepfakes coming to our seniors with images and recordings that look and sound just like their relatives, that’s even scarier.”

Those who believe they’ve been a victim of a scam “should call their financial institution, then law enforcement — call the FBI at 1-800-CALLFBI or file a report online at the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center, Tripp said, adding that Chinese translators are available over the phone.

Shame and isolation
Alongside shame, other barriers to reporting scams include the victim’s fear of retaliation and limited in-language access to reporting resources, said Ali Chiu, lead consultative services supervisor for the Elder Abuse Prevention Program at the Institute on Aging. “What I worry about most is isolation, both for lack of in-language resources, and self-isolation from people who could help.”

One 72 year old monolingual Chinese woman contacted the Institute on Aging only “because we were on TV and I spoke her language” on a Channel 26 broadcast, she continued. “This woman was rich, got a phone call about an investment scam. She’d ignore it and they kept calling, making threats. She went to the bank to withdraw money when they said they were tracking her phone … She eventually put her house on a lien with over 15% interest.”

“She didn’t want to tell anybody about it because she was so ashamed,” Chiu said.

Often, victims are afraid to report scams because scammers can be trusted individuals. A notable/recent example is Derek Vincent Chu, an East Bay man indicted by a federal grand jury in April 2023 for crimes related to a Ponzi scheme involving at least $39 million dollars and over 100 victims, many from Chinatown in San Francisco.

Between 2013 and 2020, Chu used several companies to raise the $39 million by fraudulently soliciting investments, using newer money to pay off earlier investors and also using over $7.3 million to pay off personal credit card debt for travel and luxury items, said Jaynry Mak, an attorney representing about a dozen victims.

Power in storytelling
“I first knew of this case when a Chinatown merchant who grew up knowing this man told me she’d lent him money and he never paid her back,” said Mak. Months later, another senior woman told Mak that she had known Chu, her life insurance broker, over 30 years, and that he’d taken her money.

In 2016, the second woman and her husband, who had saved money to retire as garment workers, were approached by Chu and his father, asking to borrow $5,000 to be paid back with 15% interest, which was paid in full. In mid-2017, the two approached the senior couple again asking to borrow $230,000 and, after receiving regular interest payments, asked for $50,000 more, and then another $50,000.

By January 2018, the Chus told the couple to sign a document to protect their investments. The husband was very sick — “on his deathbed,” Mak said — and as monolingual Chinese they couldn’t read the document, but signed it under power of attorney, having trusted Chu.

The couple later learned they had signed a loan on their property for $800,000 that Chu received; to refinance the property, as they weren’t making payments, the Chus then took out $1.2 million, bringing the total mortgage to over $2 million alongside the original loan.

The Chus then convinced the victims, unable to pay these loans themselves, to sell the property.

When Mak realized this case was related to the earlier case of the merchant, she filed a report with SFPD, found similar reports filed from other victims, went to the District Attorney and then filed a San Francisco Superior Court lawsuit in 2019.

After the indictment made the news, many other victims reached out to Mak, such as one monolingual senior in Chinatown tens of thousands of dollars deep in a cryptocurrency scam.

“Many times, the headlines talk about victims, and it really is a very sad story,” said Mak. “But by reporting, they stopped other victims from being victims, stopped this scammer from getting more money, and there’s a lot of power in those stories.”

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