Chinatown warned of Lunar New Year scams 

click to enlarge Police Chief Greg Suhr, Captain David Lazar, and Chinese Chamber of Commerce general consultant Rose Pak hand out safety information packets to Grant Street merchants on extortion incidents during the Lunar New Year. - JESSICA KWONG/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Jessica Kwong/the s.f. examiner
  • Police Chief Greg Suhr, Captain David Lazar, and Chinese Chamber of Commerce general consultant Rose Pak hand out safety information packets to Grant Street merchants on extortion incidents during the Lunar New Year.

Top-ranked Police Department officials, the department's nonprofit crime prevention partner and Chinatown activists on Wednesday morning went business to business on Grant Avenue distributing safety information packets to merchants, a practice that began 18 years ago when extortion during the Lunar New Year months was at a high.

The Chinese Chamber of Commerce's general consultant Rose Pak recalled once running after extortionists to a corner until she had corralled the criminal.

"I'm glad to report there used to be hundreds of extortions — every store, large and small, got hit — and we basically eliminated the extortion," she said at a news conference at the Grant Avenue gateway to Chinatown.

Extortion was "kind of nasty tradition" during the Lunar New Year months when someone would go to a business, offer a small flower plant as a gift and the business owners would be forced to accept it and display it in a visible place, said Brent Sverdloff, executive director of San Francisco Safety Awareness for Everyone, the Police Department's nonprofit partner since 1976. The plant would serve as a marker for criminals in the ring, who would tell merchants they needed to pay for protection or get their shops damaged.

"It was an extortion scandal ring, a time in Chinatown when there was poor communication and mistrust between the community and police, so it proliferated," Sverdloff said. "That was the most common kind of scam."

Cases involving such extortion dropped significantly in the last six years in large part due to the annual public safety and crime prevention work spearheaded by the nonprofit, also known as SF SAFE. Every year leading up to Lunar New Year, SF SAFE has passed out packets with tips on extortion, burglary and robbery prevention and how to communicate with police in the event of an incident. This year, instead of including traditional red envelopes, merchants received fai chuen, a red-and-gold poster signifying good luck, with the message "Be safe" printed in Chinese and English.

The last couple of years have seen just three or fewer extortion cases in Chinatown, according to Police Chief Greg Suhr, and one year had none.

"Since we started this campaign, every year they have all but disappeared," Suhr said, "so we want to keep doing it.

Central Police Station Capt. David Lazar added there have been zero extortion cases in Chinatown in the last seven months."

While Police Department and SAFE officials handed out safety information Wednesday, more officers and volunteers passed out red shopping bags with "Beware of street scams" printed in Chinese and English.

Extortion cases have gone down, yet criminals come up with new gimmicks so community members must continue to inform officers of incidents, Pak said.

"It's very critical that our people report it and they are reporting it," she said. "And the police are trying their best."

Law enforcement officials will hold a similar walk-through with the Bayview Police Station today along and around San Bruno Avenue, where Asians make up a large demographic.

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Bio:
Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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