A laundromat operator hands over her life savings to a company supposedly building Rose Parade floats. A married welder falls for a beautiful woman, who beats him up because he won't give her $60,000. An old lady is left empty-handed after she pays $100,000 for a chest of gold nuggets she's told have been unearthed on a construction site.
In the insular Chinese world of the San Gabriel Valley, swindlers find easy prey in the steady flow of new immigrants, vulnerable to the predators lurking in their midst.
The victims don't speak English. They have no clue how to navigate the American legal system. So instead of calling the police for help, many turn to Eddie Zhao, private eye.
Zhao knows the cons. He also knows what it is to be conned. It was a con, after all, that led him to America.
Eddie Zhao started out life as Zhao Wei, a poor Chinese peasant. His parents were small-time farmers who grew corn, wheat, sweet potatoes and melons. Briefly, when he was about 18, he was a rural policeman, issuing traffic tickets and fines. But the department was corrupt, he said, and he had no connections to help him climb the ladder. Soon he was scraping together a living fixing and selling used cars.
One day a friend told him about an American relative, a successful businessman in Los Angeles. He showed Zhao the relative's impressive card: "CEO, U.S.A. Atlantic International Corporation."
Zhao had never met an American, let alone someone so important. So when the friend said the American businessman needed help, Zhao was eager to provide it. The relative just needed a little cash infusion for his business, Zhao's friend said. He'd pay it back promptly.
Zhao pulled together what he could from his savings. But it was far from enough. So he turned to a buddy who worked as an accountant at a government-owned candy and noodle factory. The accountant, who was just as eager to help the important American, said he could get his hands on public funds, as long as they were quickly paid back.
Together they scraped together about $50,000, a massive sum in their rural backwater but a small gesture of friendship, they thought, to help the distinguished American in need.
"I was only a 23-year-old kid from the countryside. I didn't know anything about the outside world," recalled Zhao, now 37. "I just knew friendship is the most important thing and you don't second-guess your friends."
The American took the money and disappeared.
The friend who had asked Zhao to help tried to kill himself. The other friend, who had taken money from his government-run factory, nearly ended up in jail for embezzlement.
As for Zhao, he boarded a plane for the first time in his life and headed to Los Angeles. He was going to track down the missing money and bring it home. He had to borrow funds for the ticket.
Zhao's only clue was the con man's business card. The title and company name were printed in Chinese, which Zhao could read; the address was in English, which he couldn't.
At LAX, he showed a cabbie those English words and numbers — and rode off into the unknown.
To his surprise, U.S.A. Atlantic International Corp. turned out to be a three-bedroom townhouse on Atlantic Boulevard in Monterey Park. The "CEO" actually opened the door when Zhao rang the bell. He turned out to be an old Taiwanese American gambler who worked as a parking-lot attendant and sublet his spare rooms for extra cash.
"When the guy saw me, he was in shock. He couldn't believe a country bumpkin like myself could come all the way from China and was really standing there in front of him," Zhao said. "I told him, 'I am not leaving without my money. We either live together or die together.'"
For the next four months, they lived together — Zhao sleeping on a cot next to the old man's bed. The old man said he didn't have the money but promised to get it. But the two bickered constantly about how and how soon.
When the money finally was on its way, Zhao didn't have a bank account for depositing it. A new friend offered to help. He said Zhao could use his bank account and that the old man could wire the money right into it.
"He was my only friend in America," said Zhao, holding up a photograph of himself and the clean-cut Chinese man, the two standing arm in arm. "I didn't know any English. I didn't even know how to open a bank account. He offered to help and I trusted him."
Alas, it was the same old story. Friend and money promptly vanished.
George Chen, now 80, was a boarder in the townhouse when Zhao came for his money.
"He's from Communist China. He didn't know the complexity of the Chinese American community here," Chen said. "This is a world where everybody cheats on everybody else. He's just another victim."
Besides losing the money for a second time, Zhao had also lost his home. He had no excuse to stay in the townhouse after the old gambler had paid his debt.