Consumer Affairs Agency must step up anti-fraud fight

Consumers in Japan lost ¥6 trillion through fraud in 2013, according to a recent survey by the Consumer Affairs Agency. The total amount that was cheated, swindled, stolen or tricked from consumers is equivalent to 1.2 percent of Japan’s entire gross domestic product. Japan is often said to be a low-crime country; however, the results of this first-ever compilation of data on fraud shows that Japan may not be as safe as most people like to believe.

Although the agency and police have worked to make people more aware of the ways in which they can be cheated out of their money, more than 10 million incidents were reported last year, with the average loss coming to ¥590,000.

That’s a phenomenal loss for many people, especially the elderly, who are often targeted by swindlers. The agency handles all incidents involving consumer problems, and some reports noted swindles as large as millions of yen.

Since its establishment in 2009, the Consumer Affairs Agency has had its work cut out for it. Just as the agency was getting into gear, fears of radiation contamination following the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant took up much of the agency’s attention.

At the same time, the number and variety of swindles skyrocketed.

The survey included everything from online games that demand payment for prizes to online shopping problems, fake investments, and the “ore-ore” (it’s me, it’s me) scam, which still robs many elderly people who are persuaded that relatives have phoned them to ask for emergency money.

With more precautions and protections on the part of the agency, many of these swindles would never succeed. Greater public awareness is the best front line of defense, but the agency needs to also pursue known swindlers and help the police stop their operations.

It is not enough to say, “Let the buyer beware,” or to remind people that “A fool and his money are soon parted.” The swindles are becoming increasingly sophisticated and hard to detect.

Because of that, the agency needs to redouble its efforts to protect consumers no matter how gullible they may appear. As the vast sums lost are a significant percentage of GDP, the agency needs to find better ways to protect the safety of consumers and ensure that legal action is taken and compensation worked out.

The agency needs greater financial support from the central government to enable more research, raise public awareness, simplify the filing of complaints and conduct fuller investigations.

The fact that this was the first overall survey of consumer fraud ever undertaken in Japan is suggestive of the low level of consumer protection here.

While the Japanese consumer market is often held up as an object of envy in many parts of the world, this society harbors a dark underside where unsuspecting consumers are cheated on a regular basis.