By Chong Shin Yen
YOUR family is under a curse and misfortune will befall you. The only way to avert tragedy is to build a gold pagoda in China for rituals to be carried out.
But don't worry. After the rituals are completed in nine months' time, you can melt the gold and sell it.
Far-fetched as it may seem, this was a con woman's ploy to make her victims part with their money.
But by preying on their fears and superstitions, she manage to cheat one family of a cool $1.3 million.
Armed with nothing more than a glib tongue, Wong Say Foon, 47, had the rare ability of charming people into trusting her.
Despite speaking in broken English, she managed to con such educated professionals as a doctor, a teacher, a property agent and the departmental head of a statutary board.
Over a 12-year period from 1995 to 2007, she managed to sweet-talk 15 people into giving her almost $1.9 million.
Some were her neighbours in a condominum in the Upper Bukit Timah area while others were customers at a beauty salon she used to run.
Wong seized every opportunity to cheat.
While recuperating in hospital from spinal problems, she even preyed on fellow patients in the same ward.
But the law finally caught up with Wong, who was jailed seven years for cheating earlier this month.
She pleaded guilty to 20 charges, with 38 others taken into consideration during sentencing.
The court heard that Wong would befriend her victims or their family members and learn about their personal lives from conversations.
She would then use this information to weave her web of deceit, lying to her victims that she knew these details through supernatural means.
Wong would claim to belong to a sect of Chinese monks and deceive them into believing she could help once she had convinced them that they were under a curse.
Court documents showed that the biggest loser was a family of three brothers. They and two of their wives lost more than $1.3m to Wong over nine years. (See report, next page.)
In 1993, when Wong was working at a beauty salon, she got to know a customer, Madam Choy Cheng Yee, 38.
When Wong opened her own salon in 1995, Madam Choy continued to patronise her. But it closed down after two years.
Wong then met Madam Choy's husband, Mr Cheng Hsing Yuen, 42, and his family at his father's house in October 1999.
She told them there was a curse on the family, which could only be broken if they raised $1m to build a gold pagoda.
The Cheng brothers - Hsing Yuen, Hsing Hsung, 50, and Hsing Yao, 37 - and two of their wives agreed to share the cost.
Court documents showed that after Wong received the money, she made up various stories to con them further.
In June 2001, when she found out that Hsing Yuen had a dispute with Hsing Yao, she called Hsing Hsung's wife, Madam Cheong Oi Koan, 48, to 'find out what happened'.
She reminded Madam Cheong that the family had been told never to fight. She claimed that as a result of the dispute, cracks had appeared in their gold pagoda.
Wong claimed that some high priests in China had informed her about it and if nothing was done, someone in the family would meet with tragedy.
She said more gold was needed to repair the cracks.
Wong contacted Hsing Yao and Madam Choy separately and told them the same thing.
The family fell for her lies and handed over more money.
Wong also spun tales about how they would be paralysed or their loved ones would die if the rituals were not conducted.
They family realised they had been duped when they did not get back their money as promised. They made a police report in 2004.
A different ploy
If Wong found that her intended victims were not superstitious, she would use a different ploy.
She lied that she had investment opportunities which offer attractive returns. (See report, right.)
For instance, she claimed that she had connections to buy handphones directly from the manufacturer which could then be sold at a profit of $100 each.
Of the $1.9m she conned from her victims, Wong has only made restitution of only $87,850.
It was not mentioned in court how she had spent the money. But she claimed in her mitigation that she had lent most of it to two friends.
The petite Wong sobbed in the dock before she was sentenced.
Her husband and one of her sons were in court to support her but they declined to be interviewed.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Andre Moses Tan said that Wong had methodically planned each move, learning about each victim's weaknesses and then exploiting them.
'The accused is an intelligent and personable woman. She took full advantage of her victims' trust in her and manipulated them into falling for her schemes,' he said.
Pressing for a lengthy jail sentence, Mr Tan added that many of Wong's victims were educated professionals and executives who were charmed by her.
The court heard that Wong was convicted of two counts of cheating in July 1999 and was fined $12,000.
She began her cheating spree in September that year. 'She had obviously not learnt her lesson from her previous conviction,' he added.
Wong's lawyer, Mr Ravi Madasamy, said in her mitigation that she had been burdened with long-time marital and health problems.
He told the court that Wong's husband, an insurance agent, made minimal contributions to the family. The couple have four children aged between 11 and 18,.
Wong underwent numerous spinal operations and her health problems and pain led to depression, Mr Ravi said.
He also told the court that she had lent $1.13m to a friend between 1999 and 2003.
She lent another $135,000 to an acquaintance she had met at her salon in 1998. Wong claimed that both friends disappeared without returning the money.
For cheating, Wong could have been jailed seven years and fined on each charge.
This article was first published in The New Paper.