Rob Perez

Raising Cane

By Rob Perez

Sunday, August 5, 2001

When charity is
repaid with deceit

This is about a scam involving seniors, sushi and supermarkets.

As scams go, it is particularly despicable.

A young woman approaches elderly Japanese women in local supermarkets, asks for help in finding sushi ingredients and, while being helped, steals their wallets.

The victims don't realize they've been scammed until they reach the check-out line to pay for their groceries. Only then they discover, somewhat embarrassingly, that their money is gone.

In at least one case, the thief gave the woman a long thank-you hug after the ingredients were gathered, and simultaneously lifted the wallet from the victim's purse.

Police can't say how common the scam is, partly because few cases are reported.

But the Star-Bulletin spoke with one women whose wallet was stolen two weeks ago at the Aiea Times, another who was victimized several months ago at the Salt Lake Sack 'n Save and the daughter of a woman who almost became a victim a month ago at the Waipahu Times.

Although the description of the suspect was similar in each case -- a 20- or 30-something Polynesian woman of above-average height and build -- it wasn't clear whether the same woman was involved.

The circumstances of each case, though, were remarkably similar.

Each victim was an elderly Japanese woman (two were in their 80s, another was nearly 70). Each was targeted when they were alone, even though in two cases other family members were elsewhere in the store at the time.

And each woman was approached in the same friendly, talk-story manner. Though the younger women was a stranger, she usually referred to the older one as "grandma" and spoke very casually, even volunteering information, probably not true, about her family or relatives.

The suspect usually mentioned that she had to make sushi for a graduation party or some other function but was unsure what ingredients were needed. She asked what kind of nori or vinegar to use or how much she should buy. She asked where the items were in the store.

Edna Yamane, 81, said she believes her wallet was stolen from her shopping cart at the Sack 'n Save when she briefly turned her back to the woman while pointing to some ingredients. "You wouldn't think she would do something like that," Yamane said. "How could she?"

Yamane had about $20 in her wallet and a few credit cards. By the time she got home and reported the cards stolen, about $200 in unauthorized charges already had been made.

The 85-year-old Waipahu woman whose wallet was stolen at the Aiea Times said when the young suspect first asked her about finding ingredients, she referred her to a store employee. But the Waipahu woman, who asked not to be named, said the young woman approached her a short time later still seeking help.

The elder woman obliged, and afterward the suspect, pretending to be so appreciative, gave her a big hug. "She tells me, 'Thank you, grandma.'"

The victim subsequently discovered her wallet -- and about $200 -- missing. The theft was reported to police.

Gayle Horie said the woman who approached her 69-year-old mother at the Waipahu Times feigned confusion about some ingredients and asked her mother to gather what would be needed from a top shelf.

While her mother was reaching for the items, the suspect reached into her purse in the shopping cart. But the elderly woman turned around, saw what the suspect was doing and backed away before anything was taken.

The mother, however, didn't realize the woman was trying to steal her money, according to Horie, who was in another part of the store at the time. "My mother didn't understand she was being conned or tricked."

And even after she realized what happened, she didn't want to tell store managers because she was embarrassed and because she didn't want to confront the suspect and cause problems, Horie said.

Except for the Aiea case, officers from several Oahu police stations said they had not heard of any complaints about a supermarket sushi scam.

But Detective Dean Mukaida of the Kalihi station said three recent theft cases that occurred at the Star Market in the Kamehameha Shopping Center bore many similarities to the sushi scam.

In each of the Star Market cases, a young Polynesian woman of above-average height approached an elderly shopper and asked about a product or gave her a hug, pretending to be an acquaintance. Each shopper had a wallet stolen.

A woman generally matching the same description also is a suspect in two similar theft cases last month at the Kahala Mall. One occurred at the Times Super Market and the other at Longs Drug Store, and both involved a woman approaching an elderly shopper and asking for help, according to Brian Iwaishi, who is head of security for the Times chain.

The suspect was captured on video by the Times security system, and her photo, though blurred and grainy, was given to police and circulated among Times personnel, who have been asked to be on the lookout for her, Iwaishi said. The woman apparently still is at large.

Iwaishi believes the same woman is targeting elderly shoppers throughout Oahu, roaming stores looking for unsuspecting victims, not just elderly Japanese. "I know this girl is going all over the place," he said. "She's an opportunist."

She's also among the dregs of society, much like anyone else who would prey on the elderly.

"This is the most troubling sort of crime," said Joe DeMattos, an executive with the local American Association of Retired Persons. "This reaches an all-time low."

As a result of their brushes with the sushi scamster, Yamane and the 85-year-old Waipahu woman said they will be less trusting of strangers and reluctant to offer help.

"It's just so sad when you trust people and they take advantage of that trust," said Glenn Miura, son of the Waipahu victim. "It's a sad statement for today."


To avoid supermarket scams:

>> Keep purses or handbags closed and with you all the time. Don't leave them in shopping carts.

>> Always be aware of your surroundings and be wary if someone seems to be following you.

>> If a stranger asks for assistance, refer the person to store personnel.

>> If your wallet or purse is stolen, immediately report the theft to store management. Also ask that police be called. Don't be embarrassed to alert the authorities.

Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at:

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