Scam artists target bewildered elderly

Young scam artists are increasingly preying on elderly people by pretending over the phone to be their offspring or grandchildren and claiming they are in urgent need of cash, the National Police Agency reported Thursday.

Between January and October, police either probed or were told about 3,807 cases, including failed attempts. The combined amount allegedly swindled in 2,768 cases totaled 2.26 billion yen, with many of the callers asking for between 300,000 yen and 500,000 yen.

One victim was bilked by the same perpetrator on several occasions, losing 7 million yen in the process, according to police.

The NPA said, however, that police have questioned suspects in 108 cases and arrested 39.

Police believe groups of young people, especially unemployed men, are in many cases working together. Often the victims, who are generally aged 50 and above, receive calls from a young person who initiates the conversation with a familiar “ore, ore” (“hey, it’s me”).

The callers claim they are in a bind and ask for money to be deposited in a designated bank account in order to settle, for example, a traffic accident claim, loan shark debt or some other pressing financial need.

Police suspect gangsters may be involved in some of the cases, the NPA said.

There were nine reported cases in January, 14 in February, 16 in March, 65 in April and 420 in May, according to the NPA. October saw 1,158 reported cases, and the total amount swindled came to 731.5 million yen.

Most of the scams involved multiple perpetrators who played different roles — for example, one making the call, another withdrawing the cash from a bank account and yet another keeping watch while the withdrawal was made, the agency said.

Some suspects have told investigators they saw cases reported on TV and just imitated what appeared to be an easy scam, the NPA said. They told police they just called people listed in telephone directories whose names typically indicated they were elderly.

In late October, Tokyo police made arrests in a case where a man, pretending to be a son, allegedly called a 47-year-old housewife in Fuchu, western Tokyo, saying he was involved in an accident while driving a friend’s car and needed money for repairs. The woman then sent 3.3 million yen to a bank account.

Police suspect a ring of 12 bilked her and four other targets out of a combined 15 million yen.

In Yamagata Prefecture, a 75-year-old woman deposited 400,000 yen into a designated bank account after receiving a call in August from a sobbing woman claiming to be four months pregnant and in need of money for an abortion. No one has been arrested.

There are some other variations on the “it’s me” routine. In the first 10 months of the year, police received reports on 76 cases in which anonymous callers said they had kidnapped the victims’ offspring, forcing them to put money into designated accounts.

No actual kidnapping occurred, but the victims coughed up a combined 35 million yen, the NPA said.

Police are calling on families with elderly members to be wary and are asking financial institutions to freeze accounts that they suspect are being used in the scams.