Scammers and criminals target Seattle’s most vulnerable

In line at a citizenship swearing in ceremony in Tacoma. Immigrants and new citizens are disproportionately targeted by criminals and scammers, advocates say. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)
In line at a citizenship swearing in ceremony in Tacoma. Immigrants and new citizens are disproportionately targeted by criminals and scammers, advocates say. (Photo by Alex Stonehill)

It was early morning, around 7 a.m., when Urvi Shah’s cellphone rang. The illuminated screen indicated that the call was from USCIS — the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — and Shah answered immediately.

“They told me my I-94 (a form filled out by some foreign citizens when entering the U.S.) is not valid and my documents are not OK,” said Shah, who is from India and moved here a year ago when her husband got a job in the area. “He knew my address, my phone, my alien ID.”

But the official-sounding man with the American accent was no immigration officer. He was a criminal looking to take advantage of someone unsure of the system and eager to avoid trouble in a new country — a disturbingly widespread phenomenon among international communities in our region.

Shah escaped becoming a victim of fraud that day. Her husband had been warned of such scams at work and he told her to hang up when he heard she was being asked for her passport number.

The criminals tried again, this time demanding Shah wire them money or risk deportation, but Shah knew the score and disconnected.

Others haven’t been so savvy.

“These criminals are opportunists,” said Alan Lai of the Crime Victim Services Program at the Chinese Information and Service Center, a nonprofit in Seattle’s Chinatown International District.

Lai works as a liaison between the criminal-justice system and immigrants who have been victims of crime. He says he deals with more than 20 cases every month.

Lai sees all sorts of crimes — from break-ins to human trafficking — but he says scams and fraud take up much of his time. That can mean everything from standard identity theft to chillingly complex deceptions like the “blessings scam.”

“They’ll work in a group of three middle-aged Chinese women targeting an older Chinese woman,” said Lai, describing a specific crime that appeared in Chinese communities around the world a few years ago, from Melbourne to London, San Francisco to Seattle.

A poster circulated by the San Francisco Attorney General's Office warning against blessing scams.
A poster circulated by the San Francisco Attorney General’s Office warning against blessing scams.

As part of the now infamous “blessing scam,” older Chinese women are frightened into believing that someone with connections to the spirit world foresees tragedy for a loved one.

Convincing information about this family member — often a child, Lai said — is collected at a bus stop or public park ahead of time through seemingly innocent conversation with friendly strangers.

The only way to ward off this danger, the criminals say, is to have this seer bless the elderly woman’s valuables — a tradition in keeping with some religious beliefs in China.

The valuables — usually cash and jewelry — are collected in a bag that is switched for one filled with trash. When the victim opens the second bag some days later (upon instruction from the fraudsters) she realizes all of her savings have disappeared.

“I saw victims who would be talking to me in tears saying, ‘This is my lifelong savings, this is my coffin money,’” said Lai, who knows of six such cases in Seattle, the most recent one last summer.

Scams directed at immigrants often reference cultural norms or anxieties within the targeted community, said Lai. He cites examples of frauds that involve fake lawyers promising immigration solutions and one where phony police officers attempt to collect donations from business owners in the Chinatown ID (a population eager to see security improve).

But that neighborhood is not the only mark. I first met Lai as a speaker at a workshop about fraud awareness in immigrant communities in Bellevue. The organizer of that workshop, Kevin Henry of Bellevue’s Diversity Initiative, told me that he’s seen an increase in these complaints among new immigrants.

Shah, who lives on the Eastside, says more orientations about crime and the American criminal-justice system could be very helpful for new arrivals to the U.S.

She may have received her orientation the hard way, but is sharper for it. Just a few weeks after her first brush with the deportation scam she received another phone call.

“They asked: ‘Where are you? I am coming to deport you,’ ” she recalled. “I said ‘OK, I am at Crossroads Mall, come and get me.’

No one showed.

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at