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At Lunar New Year, a Big, Red Target for Pickpockets

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NEW YORK >> There is no red bunting on the front door of Helen Hsu’s home in Rego Park, Queens, no festive garlands or totems that often bedeck Chinese homes like hers during the monthlong Lunar New Year celebration, which began more than two weeks ago. If she were in her native Taiwan, there would be fluttering red paper streamers, glinting mirrors and equine caricatures heralding the Year of the Horse. Here in Queens, though, Hsu has tacked up only military flags and a crest from her son, a U.S. Marine.

Hsu’s residence has been broken into three times, most recently three years ago. She lost thousands of dollars and a pearl necklace, she said.

Thieves are drawn, police and community leaders say, by perceptions that Asian New Yorkers are likely to carry cash and unlikely to report crimes to the police because of cultural and linguistic barriers.

“If I put up that red there, it tells them, ‘I’m Chinese.’ I don’t want to show my neighborhood, then everyone would know I’m Chinese,” she said. “I don’t want to get trouble.”

Although theft from Asian-Americans is no more prevalent overall than it is from other groups nationally, according to national crime statistics, in some New York neighborhoods there is a sense of increased risk year round, a risk that is exacerbated during the Lunar New Year.

Just as pickpocketing and theft spikes during the Christmas season, when shoppers carry more cash and homes are piled with presents, theft has risen in some of New York’s Asian neighborhoods during the New Year celebration, when, traditionally, red envelopes stuffed with cash are given by elders to younger members of the family.

According to a community news blog, BensonhurtBean, after four Chinese families’ homes were burglarized in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, on Jan. 31, Lunar New Year’s Day, law enforcement officials urged residents to take down the red and gold holiday talismans, which are meant to ward off evil and to usher in luck.

The thefts have frightened residents and prompted law enforcement officials to also increase patrols and call meetings to warn residents of the increased risk of pickpockets and to caution them not to carry cash.

“You put a red scroll in front of your door and get rid of the evil spirit and bring good luck, but very unfortunately that makes people know this is an Asian family, a Chinese family, a very easy target,” said Tim Law, a community activist in Bensonhurst.

Law said he reached out to the local police precinct after the break-ins, and they scheduled a community meeting this month. Capt. William G. Taylor advised removing the decorations, saying a pattern of targeting had emerged.

About 38 percent of the population of Bensonhurst is Asian, according to data from an American Community Survey ending in 2012, the last year for which numbers are available. Yet since Jan. 1, 19 of the 20 burglaries reported in the area were of Asian households.

Early last year, the police arrested a man suspected of attacking and robbing at least eight people of Asian descent in Harlem over a two-week period. The appearance of singling out one race to attack led to the case initially being investigated by the police department’s hate crimes unit. The man, Jason Commisso, has been indicted on several counts of first-degree robbery and of burglary. A trial date has not yet been set.

Law enforcement officials say there are a number of factors that contribute to the patterns of theft in Asian communities. Many new immigrants do not have bank accounts and so must conduct even large transactions in cash. Some residents participate instead in informal, all-cash money-lending groups among peers, either for cultural reasons or because they mistrust banks because of corruption scandals in their homelands. In Flushing, Queens, on Dec. 23, more than $30,000 was stolen from a Korean woman on the street — the entire collection of one such lending organization. Many small-business owners and restaurateurs keep money at home in lockboxes or even under mattresses.

Visitors frequently travel with cash, making them targets. In Paris last summer, so many Chinese tourists were mugged that the crimes made headlines in China. On Chinese social media, one user offered up a tongue-in-cheek T-shirt design for tourists to wear in France: “Je n’ai qu’une carte de credit” (“I have nothing but a credit card”).

A comely woman beams from a banner spanning a train trestle in Flushing, wishing all a happy new year while holding aloft a red envelope, sometimes called hong bao, in which elders stuff cash for their younger relatives and friends and which bosses use lavish all-cash bonuses. In San Francisco, the police warn celebrants not to display hong bao on the street.

Nationally, the perception that is so strongly held in the city’s Asian neighborhoods does not seem to be not borne out statistically, according to information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which tabulates reported crimes based on victims’ race. People of Asian descent made up just 1 percent of the victims of all larcenies; just 3,341 such victims in 2012, the last year that data was available. In New York City, where 12 percent of the population is Asian, Asian people made up about 12 percent of the victims of grand larcenies in the first six months of last year, according to a report compiled by the Police Department.

But the view is different in places like Flushing, a center of the city’s Asian communities. The area is a busy shopping district; it also has the second highest crime rate in New York City (after the area that includes Times Square in Manhattan), according to the police. The brunt of reported crimes are burglary and pickpocketing. On a recent afternoon, police officers patrolled an underground food mall off Main Street, ordering diners to take their cellphones off the table and put them away.

In a meeting held in Flushing on Feb. 12, Inspector Brian J. Maguire said that in the previous 28 days, crime in general was up 32 percent compared with the same period a year before. There were 77 grand larcenies, compared with 48 in the same time period last year. The area also had the city’s second highest rate of burglaries over those 28 days, he said.

“There are not enough cops to watch this,” he said, referring to burglaries. He added that he was planning to request that off-duty police officers assigned to other commands but who reside in the area be asked to be vigilant, augmenting existing patrols.

A few days before Lunar New Year, police demonstrated to a Chinese audience how pickpockets operate. A week later the presentation was repeated in Korean.

Almost all of the larceny victims so far this year were women, according to police data. Many who shop and live in Flushing say they feel targeted. In Assi Plaza, an Asian market in Flushing, Kelly Roth pulled back her puffy winter coat to reveal the purse she wears underneath, ever since thieves took her handbag several years ago. She is Korean and believes her ethnicity made her muggers believe she was a prime target. They were right — she was carrying $3,000 cash. She now uses cards.

“I felt like I got stripped,” she said.

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