Eddie Zhao is on their side

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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

So he slept in an aging Nissan, hidden in the darkness of empty parking lots, until he at last found work. He got a job at a warehouse unloading mattresses imported from China, his slender frame trembling under their weight.

At $6 an hour, he knew he might never make enough to repay his friends back in China. Then, after a year, he got a job as a security guard in Montebello, moving up to $8 an hour.

It turned out to be his first lucky break.

Martin Delgadillo, a retired cop who trained the new guards, liked Zhao so much that he had him start recruiting from within the Chinese community and running training sessions in Chinese.

One day a Chinese woman called Delgadillo's school asking for help tracking down her unfaithful husband. Delgadillo didn't ordinarily take that sort of job, but he thought of Zhao and sent him out with surveillance equipment and a few tips about where to start. Within hours, Zhao had gathered evidence of the husband and his sweetheart at a Claim Jumper restaurant and a motel.

Zhao was hooked.

But when he asked how he could become a private investigator, people told him not to bother. After all, he lacked law-enforcement experience and still spoke very little English.

Stubborn as ever, he pored through the Chinese yellow pages, calling up the handful of Chinese American detective agencies and offering to work for free in exchange for lessons.

"No one wanted to hire me," he said. "They didn't want anyone to steal their business."

Finally, a Korean American detective took pity on him. Zhao worked in the man's firm for three years, all the while watching American TV to learn English and cramming in every spare moment to study for the licensing exam. Painstakingly, he translated study guides from the dictionary.

The hard work paid off. In 2002, he got his private detective's license, managed to pay back his friends in China and hung up a shingle as one of the few licensed private detective agencies catering to Chinese-speaking clients in the San Gabriel Valley.

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Zhao's business flourished. Scammers were everywhere. Some were local. Some made their way across the Pacific from China. It wasn't just that they knew that the pickings were easy. They also were confident that few of those they cheated would contact the authorities.

"I wanted to go to the police, but I had nothing on the man," said Lucy Chang, a single mother from Rosemead who lost $14,000 to a customer at her laundromat who sold her fraudulent stocks. She thought she was investing in a company that made Rose Parade floats, an idea that pleased her.

"I was impressed by him. He talked about things like being part of the Rose Parade, things in the American mainstream that are inaccessible to us new immigrants, things that made us proud," Chang said.

Zhao wasn't able to get Chang's money back or the con man behind bars. But he gathered enough information to go to the police. He found other victims too, dating back a long time. And he got the scam covered in the Chinese media, perhaps preventing others from being victimized.

"He's been doing this for 20 years!" Chang said of the con man. "Almost all of his victims are Chinese, mostly old ladies and single women. They prey on us because they know how we think. We tend to say 'Forget about it, let's use the loss here to make luck there.'"

Zhao now has a wife, a child and a nice house in Arcadia. His firm, American Professional Investigations, has an office in Hacienda Heights. These days, he rarely does his own stakeouts. He has about a dozen people working for him on contract. He's also good at getting publicity — and occasionally a client complains that his prices are too high as a result.

"We are new immigrants, we have no mouth to speak for ourselves, we have to hire someone else to represent us. So we are at their mercy," said Baohong Huo, a San Gabriel welder who said he paid Zhao $5,000 for background information on the woman who courted and then pummeled him, smashing him over the head with a steel jug when he wouldn't hand over $60,000.

"I think he charged me too much," Huo said of Zhao. "Lawyers, investigators, we are afraid of them all. Whatever they ask us to pay we pay…. We worry if we ask too many questions, they may refuse to help us."

Yet most agree Zhao provides a rare and valuable service.

Sanford Perliss, an L.A. attorney, said he was thrilled to find Zhao six years ago after a long search for a Chinese investigator.

"He is energetic and he speaks Mandarin, which is very necessary in the Chinese community," Perliss said.

There's never a shortage of marks looking to be reunited with their lost cash. There's the guy who paid $30,000 for a Porsche he'd never seen, which was supposed to be shipped from Taiwan. The dozens of women who fell victim to the fly-by-night matchmaking agency that promised to marry all of them off to the same man. The men who went on blind dates with a woman, only to find their homes cleaned out when they returned.

One growth area in the world of scams is trans-Pacific fraud. Swindlers from China cold-call business owners in the San Gabriel Valley, inviting them to China to start joint ventures. The manager of a local casino-dealer school received such a call and hired Zhao to do a background check. It turned out that the same caller had conned many other local businesses. One man actually flew to China, where his hosts wined and dined and then threatened to kill him. He'd already given them $20,000, but they wanted more.

The gold-nuggets con already had been played out in China when an elderly lady from Rosemead became a casualty. She forked over $100,000 in cash to have the treasures delivered to her home.

"She didn't suspect anything until the next day," said Zhao, who was hired to help get the money back. "By then the guy's phone had been disconnected."

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One day a few years ago, Zhao ran into the old swindler whose scam first brought him to America. The man had the nerve to suggest that he was the source of Zhao's success. "You wouldn't be in America if I hadn't conned you," he said.

The memory leaves Zhao furious.

"I hate these con artists," he said. "I am not grateful to these cheaters and liars. I am grateful to America. I had nothing. It was America that gave me a fair shot at making something of my life."

chingching.ni@latimes.com

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