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Creative crooks stay one step ahead


Special To The Japan Times

The “Ore, ore” (“It’s me”) fraudsters and their ilk, who telephone elderly people and pretend to be a relative in need of money to help them out of a jam, keep coming up with new scams.

One might say Japan is a target-rich environment. In an online survey conducted by the Asahi Shimbun two years ago, people were asked if they considered themselves easily deceived or cheated. Five percent of respondents gave “yes” replies and another 32 percent admitted they were vulnerable to some degree.

Their responses bring to mind an oft-quoted expression that goes, “Shōjiki-mono ga baka wo miru” (“Honesty doesn’t pay”). Sadly, criminal tricksters devote a lot of effort to refining their techniques, thwarting attempts by the authorities and financial institutions to raise the public’s awareness about them. The penalties for fraud, as they now stand, do not appear to pose enough of a deterrent.

The most notorious of these scams are the “It’s me” ones that prey mainly on elderly victims. This past week, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department announced that as of the end of September, nationwide losses to fraud totaled ¥40.4 billion (almost $349 million) — putting 2014 on track to surpass the previous record, ¥48.9 billion, set only last year.

Just when it looked like the authorities were finally making headway against the problem in the greater Tokyo area, con artists began expanding to other areas of the country.

In the past, few people in Osaka had fallen victim to such swindles.

“That’s because Osakans are tightfisted,” a man named Fumiaki Tada, himself a swindling victim, was quoted as saying in the now-defunct Yomiuri Weekly. “But I use ‘tightfisted’ in the good sense of the word. They keep asking questions until they’re satisfied, and it’s damn hard to get them to part with their money.”

However, by 2012 the fraudsters had begun making headway in Osaka as well. From only 1 percent of fraud cases nationwide during the first half of 2011, the number of victims in Osaka had risen to 7.5 percent by the second half of 2012, with the amount of monetary losses jumping 76-fold.

Meanwhile, the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan took note of a completely new type of scam: Tokyo Olympics fraud. This style of shakedown popped up following Tokyo’s winning bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. From 63 cases reported in the last four months of 2013, the figure leaped to 127 during the first five months of 2014. And that, reports Nikkan Gendai (June 10), is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

In one such case, an elderly man living in Akita Prefecture was solicited by a caller pretending to be a stockbroker, who urged him to buy corporate bonds issued by a construction firm that had won the bid to erect the new stadium.

“Our company won the drawing for the right to purchase them,” the man was told. “Only private individuals are allowed to buy them, and there’s a time limit on the offer, so unless you decide quickly you’ll miss out. Let us make a ¥10 million purchase of the bonds in your name, and then we’ll buy them back from you at a premium, all right?”

The broker agreed to let the man invest ¥5 million, which he obtained by cashing in his life insurance policy. The money was mailed by genkin-kakitome (cash via registered mail), receipt of which was confirmed by a cohort who feigned to be an employee of the construction company.

“I’ll be sending your certificates by the morning of (a certain date),” he assured the victim. Needless to say, he never did.

Such Olympics-related scams have so far reportedly bilked victims out of more than ¥1 billion.

Finally we come to so-called Line sagi (fraud), which involves the theft of user IDs in a chat application supplied by Line, the provider of free smartphone applications that has enjoyed exponential growth from mid-2011, reaching more than 50 million users in Japan.

While incorporated in Japan, Line is a fully owned subsidiary of South Korea’s Naver Corp. In previous columns I have noted that nationalistic sentiments appear to have spawned resentment over its success. This somehow justifies the use of the company’s name together with “fraud” — even though the same types of crimes are also being committed via other companies’ applications.

Shukan Gendai (Nov. 15) devotes six pages, with enlargements of the telephone messages, to demonstrate how hijacking of a Line ID can be used to pull off an “It’s me” scam via a chat application.

According to IT journalist Yoh Mikami, the modus operandi might go something like this: (Text message) Have you got a minute? My father has been in an accident, and I’m on the way to the hospital. I need ¥100,000 to cover his treatment. Can you lend it to me? Here’s the account number. I’m together with a friend, the account is in his name. He’ll withdraw it for me.”

When cash is not practical, the victims might be persuaded to purchase money substitutes, such as prepaid gift cards for iTunes, that can be ordered online and paid for by credit card.

These types of ID theft are said to be facilitated by sloppiness in setting passwords. Some 70 percent of computer and smartphone users rely on the same passwords for multiple applications such as their email accounts, social networks and online shopping accounts.

For those who are concerned they might be vulnerable to such shenanigans, the magazine suggests they obtain software such as Symantec’s Password Management program, which is designed to prevent such security breaches.