A 57-year-old Cantonese-speaking woman claims a trio of thieves hypnotized her into giving them $160,000 in life savings in a bizarre scam that has Chinatown leaders raising alarms about bewitching bamboozlers — and experts raising their eyebrows about the victim’s spellbinding tale.
“It seems like it’s something that’s potentially very dangerous,” said Mark Liu, deputy director of Boston’s Chinese Progressive Association. “I think the elderly are particularly vulnerable because they obviously would have a hard time just walking away.”
Police, who are taking the scam seriously, didn’t say how the three women, who were described as Asian and in their 30s and 40s, were able to lull the victim into a hypnotic trance, but Liu’s organization has warned its members to remain vigilant when approached by strangers and to keep conversations brief.
Local clinical hypnotist Harvey Zarren said people can be entranced into turning over cash, but it usually happens over a longer period of time or in a cult setting.
“Having somebody instantaneously hypnotize you on the street and you turn over huge amounts of valuables, to me, sounds a little unlikely,” said Zarren, a board member for the New England Society of Clinical Hypnosis. “I look at this story and I say somebody is going to have to prove this to me.”
Boston police said reports of similar scams have surfaced in New York City, and community leaders told the Herald the con has roots in Chinese lore. Liu said his mother warned him of mesmerized muggings as a child in Hong Kong.
Police, who issued an alert yesterday, said the victim was food shopping in Boston’s Chinatown on April 15 when three women, who also spoke Cantonese, tapped her on the shoulder and began asking random questions about her family members.
Only one con artist spoke and the victim told police she believes she was unwillingly hypnotized by the suspects, who gave her a plastic bag and dispatched her home with instructions to meet them several hours later on Boston Common, according to police. The victim filled the bag with two gold rings, a necklace, a jade bracelet, her passport and $160,000 cash and rendezvoused, valuables in hand, with the three women, cops said.
Since the alleged incident, Chinatown has been on edge amid tales of at least two other unreported evil enchantments, including one elderly man swindled out of $20,000, said Georgiana Tam, office manager at the Asian American Civic Association.
“If anyone asks me for directions,” said Tam, “I’m not going to respond.”
Boston police said last month’s incident in Chinatown is the only report they have received of a heist by hypnosis.
Poling Ng, program director at Manhattan’s Open Door Senior Center, said the scam is widely under-reported because the victims don’t speak English or are embarrassed to go to police. She said reports of similar cons have increased from past years, citing several this week.
“Before, you laughed at it,” Ng said. “But these couple of months, it’s a really serious problem. That’s why our social workers and case workers really try to protect our seniors and talk to them.”