Chinese New Year may have just passed, but San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón is warning residents in Chinatown about a scam that has popped up every year. The “blessing scam,” which is a scam committed by fortune tellers of all cultures, involves a “psychic” who claims s/he will un-curse someone if the victim is willing to pay up large sums of money or gold.
This world has no shortage of pain, hardships, and heartache. It is fairly easy for these “psychics” to convince their victims that they are cursed. Overall, incidents of the blessing scam, carried out mostly in San Francisco’s Chinatown, have decreased dramatically from 2012, when 47 cases were reported and 10 people were charged with crimes. City officials and law enforcement attribute this decrease to the community outreach and education they have been doing in senior centers in Chinatown. They have been warning people not to fall for scammers asking them for their family heirlooms, valuables, or money.
Fraudulent Fortune Telling vs. ‘Free Speech’
Under California’s Penal Code § 332, fraudulently taking someone’s money or property through: card game tricks (ie. the “three card monte”), betting or gambling, or fraudulent fortune telling is a crime. It is considered a type of theft.
However, the crime of fraudulent fortune telling is difficult to prosecute. Nearly three decades ago in 1985, the California Supreme Court struck down an ordinance banning fortune-telling. As such, ‘genuine’ fortune-telling is protected under the First Amendment of free speech. Since then, a handful other courts in several states (New York included) have since followed suit in response to claims brought by fortune-tellers and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
What does this mean? This means that only fortune telling fraud may be considered a crime. Generally, the fortune-teller must not legitimately believe in his or her services, and must have the intent to defraud victims of large sums of money/property. In other words, you must have knowingly lied.
A violation of CA Penal Code § 332 is the same as with California theft. If you defraud someone of property worth more than $950, it is up to the prosecutor to charge you with either a misdemeanor or felony. A misdemeanor is punishable by up to 6 months imprisonment and $1,000. If you defraud someone worth more than $5,000, it is a felony punishable by up to three years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Continue reading