Tzu Chi Foundation, Consumer Action combat Chinese senior scams

Published: Wednesday, March 06, 2019

After attending a Consumer Action train-the-trainer event in which Consumer Action’s Nelson Santiago discussed for-profit school scams, Shelley Wang of Tzu Chi Foundation approached Santiago and asked if Consumer Action could speak—in Chinese —about frauds and scams at one of the humanitarian organization’s Los Angeles-area service centers.

"I know just the person for the job," Santiago recalled telling Wang, and soon after introduced her to Consumer Action's very own media star and sought-after Chinese community educator Jamie Woo.

Woo was thrilled at the invitation to speak at Tzu Chi Foundation because of its decades-long reputation as a leading worldwide charity. Tzu Chi was founded in Taiwan in 1966 by the Taiwanese Buddhist Master Zheng Yan. The organization was originally led by a group of 30 housewives who raised funds for its work by selling crafts made by hand and saving money in makeshift "piggy banks" created out of sections of bamboo stalks. The organization has grown immensely, and today Tzu Chi boasts 10 million members in 47 countries.

In the United States, Tzu Chi Foundation's work has included providing assistance to people affected by natural disasters and major accidents, such as Hurricane Katrina and the California wildfires. Internationally, the group has provided on-the-ground assistance following earthquakes, tsunamis and other disasters affecting many countries, including China, Indonesia and Haiti. Relief has included providing drinking water, food (including an instant rice that can be prepared with hot or cold water), blankets made of recycled water bottles, and even mobile housing units and prepaid cards to disaster victims. In California, Tzu Chi's mobile dental clinic and health care clinic are very popular with low-income, uninsured consumers.

After planning the Tzu Chi presentation to coincide with her media work in Southern California during early December, Woo braved one of Los Angeles's coldest storms of the year (always headline news in those parts) to meet an eager group of senior citizen participants at Tzu Chi Foundation's center in El Monte.

During her presentation, Woo spoke on senior-specific scams and frauds. She explained how seniors can avoid becoming fraud victims by learning to recognize a scam when they see or hear it. One typical scam Woo discussed was the so-called "tour scam," where scammers persuade victims to travel to places like Hawaii before inundating them with high-pressure sales tactics, prompting them to buy property, land or merchandise.

Woo also described a case where a "senior support center" serving the Chinese community had requested monthly payments for future funeral expenses, without any written agreement or record. When the center shut down, seniors had little chance of recouping the funds they had contributed.

Woo emphasized that in some situations, unfamiliarity with a product or simply with how things work in the U.S. can lead to victimization. Woo shared a story about a consumer call she received on a radio show. The caller was ready to invest in Bitcoin based on the recommendation of an acquaintance. The caller, however, had no idea what Bitcoin was, did not understand it as an investment and didn't speak a word of English—a recipe for a bad outcome.

As for unfamiliarity with U.S. formalities, Woo explained that some people in the Chinese community don't understand the significance of signing their name to a document.

Woo explained to INSIDER that some Chinese seniors might not think a contract or other document they've signed is binding or legitimate if they haven't "stamped it" with their personalized seal or "chop stamp." They may be accustomed to such a stamp being required to legitimize formal, legally binding documents in their home country. (A chop stamp serves as a unique identifier, with the bearer’s name engraved in wood or jade.)

Tzu Chi workshop attendees appreciated the information Woo handed out, including Consumer Action's Chinese publications on identity theft, senior fraud, the California LifeLine program and a brochure detailing Consumer Action's multilingual education and advocacy work across the country. Woo also left participants with tips related to credit reports, credit scores and credit freezes; protecting personal information and data; avoiding telemarketers' calls; online safety and internet shopping; and more. Participants repeatedly asked Woo when she would be returning.

“I was glad for the opportunity to give my first Los Angeles-area presentation,” Woo said. “Being in a room with a large group of people—wide-eyed and ready to learn—is always a rewarding and humbling experience."




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