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Families Lose $140,000 to Money Cleansing Scam

Liz Jones

Lakewood police are looking for a woman known as Senora Monica. She claimed to be a traditional healer who could cleanse money — or rid it of any negative energy. But instead, she ran off with nearly $140,000 from several Latino families. KUOW's Liz Jones reports.


It's not money laundering. It's called "money cleansing." And it's part of a well–known practice in Latino communities, called "curanderismo."

Pallan: "The practice of curanderismo in Latin America, you could call it a kind of powerful folk medicine."

Michelle Habell–Pallan is an associate professor at the University of Washington. Her work focuses on Latino culture.

Habell–Pallan: "This practice is a mix of indigenous and Catholic spiritual beliefs, mixed in also with the deep knowledge of the medicinal value of native plants. These are community practices throughout the Americas and in the United States where you have Latino communities."

Traditional curandero healers use herbs, natural remedies and supernatural methods to treat a range of physical and spiritual illnesses.

Habell–Pallan says the Lakewood families who got scammed likely wanted the money cleansing as a way to bring good luck. It's related to a Catholic tradition of blessing material items.

Habell–Pallan: "At various seasons in the church calendar you can go and get certain things blessed. Like sometimes you can get your pets blessed, or your car blessed."

Senora Monica advertised she could help with "all your problems." Her business cards say she performs spells and cleansings.

The Lakewood families say they met her at a local swap meet or heard her radio ads. They gave her money to cleanse and arranged get it back from her Sunday evening. But the money, and Senora Monica, never reappeared.

Lieutenant Heidi Hoffman is with the Lakewood police. She says one family claims it lost $100,000, while others lost a couple thousand or less.

This scam is the first of its kind for Lakewood, Hoffman says. And one of the more cold hearted.

Hoffman: "It's one thing to play upon people's greed, but it's another thing to play on people's fears. And I think she took advantage of a cultural belief in bad luck and a fear that maybe the money really could be cursed and played on that and took advantage of that."

Senora Monica used fake documents to get her business license and open a store in Lakewood. So police have few leads about her real identity.

Hoffman says, judging by the way she covered her tracks, it's likely she's pulled this scam in other communities.

I'm Liz Jones, KUOW News.

© Copyright 2009, KUOW

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