Blessing Scammers Busted in Bali

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Yet again, professional scammers are being mislabelled as hypnotists.

Police in Bali have arrested a gang of seven scammers, including three Chinese nationals, who tricked elderly ethnic Chinese women into handing over their valuables for a blessing to save their family members from evil spirits.

The blessing scam, also known as the ghost scam, has been taking place since at least the early 2000s. It started in China and Hong Kong and then spread to Chinatown districts in the US, England, Turkey, Australia and several Southeast Asian countries.

A typical gang of blessing scammers includes two or more women, who to approach victims in public areas, such as markets, while men pose as mystical healers capable of exorcising spirits.

Elderly women of Chinese descent are targeted for several reasons. First, they probably speak Chinese, making them willing to trust strangers who approach speaking their own language. Second, they are likely to keep valuables at home, rather than in a bank. Third, they tend to believe that ceremonial rituals and blessings can remove negative energy or evil spirits.

Here’s how the scam works: A woman approaches a target and puts her at ease by speaking Chinese. She steers the conversation toward family, health and healing. Then she says one of the target’s family members is being attacked by spirits and will die unless a ritual is undertaken.

Another woman in the gang “overhears” the conversation and claims that she or someone she knows was cured by a Chinese healer. A third woman comes along and offers to take the target to a healer.

Upon being introduced to the healer, usually a man, the victim is informed she must assemble all of her cash and gold. The valuables are then wrapped up and blessed to stop bad energy or spirits from attacking the family member. The gang then hands back a worthless package, to be opened later to avoid interfering with the blessing, and makes off with the real valuables.

Victims are often too embarrassed to admit they have been conned, and in Indonesia, they may fear they have to pay police to investigate their case.

 

Noodles and sugar

The gang busted in Bali consisted of three Chinese men and four ethnic Chinese Indonesian women. Police said the group had operated for about one year, scamming old women in Jembrana district and Denpasar city, as well as in Banyuwangi, East Java, and Tasikmalaya, West Java.

The scammers were identified as Chinese nationals Chen Chen Cong (38), Huang Ping Sui (37) and Chen Ali (33), and Indonesian women Dewi Ilmi Hidayati alias Vivi Rosdiana (38) from Purworejo, Central Java; Maratus Solikah alias Emma (39) from Banyuwangi, East Java; Muliyani (33) from Tanjung Pinang, Riau; and Tjhai Fen Kiat alias Say (27) from Banten.

On October 24, the gang booked into Segara Mandala Hotel in Jembrana district. The next morning, they visited a local market. At about 7am, Emma approached Sulastri (69), who owns a restaurant in Mendoyo on the Denpasar-Gilimanuk highway. Emma pretended to be looking for some Chinese medicine. Another member of the gang, Dewi, then came along and began talking about healing. The conversation moved to rituals, and the women warned Sulastri she must gather all of her valuables for a blessing or one of her children would die.

First, they drove Sulastri to her restaurant, where she took two gold bars, each weighing 1kg, as well as 2kg of gold jewellery. She also took her savings books for two bank accounts.

Next, the scammers drove her to a branch of Bank Rakyat Indonesia (BRI), where she withdrew her savings of Rp200 million. Then they visited a Bank Central Asia (BCA) branch and she withdrew Rp450 million.

Sulastri handed over her cash and gold, which amounted to about Rp3 billion (US$200,000). She watched one of the gang neatly wrap the valuables in newspaper. A ritual was performed and she was given a package and told not to open it for a while. About 20 minutes later, she unwrapped the newspaper and was shocked to find some packets of Indomie-brand instant noodles and bags of Gulaku-brand sugar. Meanwhile, the gang drove to the coast and took a car ferry to East Java.

More upset than embarrassed, Sulastri reported the crime to Jembrana Regional Police. Thanks to a CCTV camera outside Sulastri’s restaurant, police were able to identify the gang’s car, a white Toyota Rush SUV, and its number plate.

A few days later, police sent a team to Sidoarjo, East Java, where the vehicle was registered. They tracked down the owner, who said the car was being used by his younger sister, Emma, who lived in Banyuwangi. Police followed the trail and were informed Emma had on October 27 returned to Bali.

Officers then traced Emma to a villa at Taman Ujung in Karangasem district. She and the rest of the gang were arrested there at 4am on October 29. Police confiscated evidence including two Toyota SUVs, gold jewellery and piles of cash.

Police said the scammers were “first class hypnotists” because their victims “were completely helpless when told to withdraw cash”. They further said one of the cars used by the gang was equipped with a mechanism that automatically switched number plates, even while the vehicle was being driven.

The scammers were taken to Jembrana Police headquarters. Police said three of the women were wives or girlfriends of the Chinese men. After some of their scams, the Chinese men had transferred part of the proceeds to China and regularly returned there themselves to avoid overstaying their visas.

Chinese nationals arrested in Indonesia for fraud are often deported to face trial at home, but the trio nabbed in Jembrana could face a local court, even if they are part of an international syndicate. Police have informed the Chinese Consul General in Bali of their arrest.

Local media reports highlighted the gang’s expertise in hypnotism and even black magic. Of course, there’s no such thing as putting someone completely under your power by hypnosis. Instead, there is misdirection by persuasion. The media must stop telling people that hypnotism is real and should instead urge them to practice healthy scepticism.

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.