This week's feature story, Ghost Stories, explores the series of scams that hit San Francisco's Chinese community over the past year. According to the District Attorney's Office, more than 50 people have been conned out of a combined $1.5 million.
Those numbers, of course, are based on victims' reports. And though DA George Gascon uses the stats to illustrate the scope of the crimes, he doesn't necessarily take them as Gospel.
When it comes to handling the ghost scam cases, Gascon's office has practiced what it preaches: It is wary of getting conned. It is keenly aware of the possibility that malevolent opportunists will falsely claim to have been scammed in hopes of scoring a chunk of compensation cash.
This is why the DA's Office did not initially release mug shots of the ghost scam suspects. Authorities relied on photo line-ups to match victims with the suspects. Only a small proportion of the victims who participated in the line-ups positively ID'd the accused. In the photo line-up for a trio of defendants who were arrested at the San Francisco International Airport in May, for instance, more than 30 victims browsed the faces, but only five fingered the suspects.
Maybe some of the victims were scammed by another set of con artists. Maybe some of the victims just couldn't remember what the culprits looked like. Maybe some of the participants were the malevolent opportunists the DA's Office was guarding against. What is certain, is that the vast majority of victims have not identified any suspects. Fewer than a dozen official victims, in total, are tied to the three ghost scam cases.
Those victims are eligible for some compensation -- from a fund created from the cash seized from the defendants when they were arrested. The compensation, to be sure, will not cover all the loses. But the other victims -- the ones not linked to any case -- are unlikely to see any cash, in part because there is no legal mechanism to compensate a victim when there is no perpetrator in custody, and in part because there might be no way to prove exactly how much money was stolen from certain victims.
They can, however, get back some of the lost jewelry, if the jewelry was in the defendants' possession at the time of arrest. The victims must contact the DA's Office and describe the lost pieces -- the way you describe your phone to the guy working the lost-and-found desk at Disneyland.
D.A. George Gascon has certainly done his part to help stem the crime spree. He was the first District Attorney in America to prosecute the suspects behind the ghost scams, which have also hit Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, Las Vegas, Seattle, and other major metropolises around the world. Gascon also spearheaded a public awareness campaign that sought to educate the scam's potential targets -- elderly Cantonese speaking women -- before they could be victimized.
But one of the things he can't do is get most of the victims their money back.