While studying for his Religious Studies doctorate in Taiwan in 2004, Jonathan H.X. Lee read through a worn, '80s era textbook. For one lesson Lee turned the page to a section about faith.
The chapter included a sidebar which provided an anecdote illustrating the power of religious faith. It told the story of women in Taiwan who lost their life savings after a person claiming to be a shaman convinced them to put their money into a bag for a blessing to prevent a loved one's death.
So, more than a decade later, when the SFPD began warning San Franciscans of a series of ghost scams targeting the Chinese community, Lee, now a religious studies professor at San Francisco State University, was already familiar.
For more on the ghost scams, see this week's cover story: Ghost Stories: Scams Targeting S.F.'s Cantonese Community Reveal the Terrible Power of Belief
The origins of the ghost scam remain murky. Two certainties, though, are that the con was not born in San Francisco and was not born last year.
One local law enforcement official says that the scam had plagued Hong Kong for years before reaching American soil. "Hong Kong had this happening before," says the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the international scope of the scam. "This has been the hustle going on for a minute. Everybody there knows this hustle."
And during the trial of one ghost scam case, prosecutor Michael Sullivan accused the defendants of committing the scam all around Southeast Asia over the past five years-- in Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, and possibly Japan.
To Lee, the scam did not pop up in San Francisco in March 2012 out of thin air. The old textbook was not the only place he had encountered it.
At a family dinner in the early 2000s, Lee's parents mentioned the ghost scam. His parents, who lived in Southern California, explained that a friend of a friend had fallen victim. A few years later, on a plane to Malaysia, Lee read an inflight magazine that noted the scam taking place in Australia.
Since then, it's washed across America-- from Seattle and Las Vegas to New York City and Boston.