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Police said Friday they have arrested three men on suspicion of running a mobile phone scam in which victims were billed for unwittingly listening to sexual or other messages by calling back a number that appeared on their phones.

Company executives Yasuo Suzuki, 33, and Masami Tanaka, 26, both of Tokyo, as well as Katsuaki Saito, 45, who worked at the same firm as Tanaka, have been arrested, according to the Metropolitan Police Department. Authorities said the arrests were probably the first in connection with such a scam.

Five people who called the number left on their mobile phones between early February and mid-April were connected to a telephone set up at Tanaka’s home in Shinjuku Ward that played recorded messages, many of them sexual, according to police.

Investigators determined that the recorded messages were “obscene items” and arrested the three on suspicion of displaying obscene goods.

The suspects obtained some 59 million yen in February alone through the scam, charging 100 yen per minute when people called back, police said. Investigators said they believe the three suspects have pocketed at least 100 million yen since they began the scam last June.

Police said they suspect that tens of thousands of people were taken in, with some paying as much as 100,000 yen for calling back. The suspects charged an additional penalty fee of 30,000 yen when their “customers” delayed payment for more than a month, they added.

Investigators said Tanaka picked up data processing skills while attending vocational school and developed a computer system that automatically dialed about 1 million phone numbers and cut the connection in 0.3 seconds.

In addition to the one-ring fraud, the suspects also sent e-mail spam to about 1.5 million people at a time, according to police.

The suspects allegedly recorded the phone numbers of those who called back and later told them that they would take the issue to court if the bills were not paid. While about 70 percent of the people refused to pay up, about 30 percent did, police said.

The Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications Ministry as well as mobile phone operators have been warning mobile phone users about these types of scams, which have become increasingly common.

According to the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, some 16,000 cases of these “one-ring” scams have been taken to consumer complaint centers nationwide since late November.

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