• Kyodo

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Shiga Prefecture is experimenting with a novel idea to crack down on crooks trying to squeeze money out of unsuspecting people by billing them for, say, paid adult Internet sites they have never used.

Acting with the local office of the Finance Ministry and local police, the prefectural government is trying to close the extortion loop by asking banks to shut down accounts designated for the payment of bogus bills.

Along with a sharp growth in paid Internet services, a new con game has sprung up, making money by sending fictitious bills to a large number of addresses, demanding payment for Internet services to a designated bank account.

The scam operators typically use official sounding names, such as “Loan Collection Group” and “Debt Management Union,” and the bills go out by e-mail, telegram or postcard.

While the sums involved are usually not exorbitant, something like 20,000 yen, the bills usually come with a threat: that agents will visit the homes or offices of delinquent payers if they don’t pay.

According to the National Consumer Affairs Center, complaints against such bill collections have jumped more than 10 times in a single year. The center said it handled 17,000 complaints in fiscal 2002, up from 1,400 in the previous year.

To cope with rising public complaints, the Shiga Prefectural Government set up a liaison council earlier this year with the Finance Ministry’s Otsu office, the prefectural police force and the local bar association.

The Otsu finance office responded positively and vowed to help the prefectural government crackdown.

Acting on information made available by the Shiga chapter of the National Consumer Affairs Center, the Otsu finance office has so far referred four cases of mass billings to local banks.

The banks, citing client confidentiality, would not say how they have handled individual cases, but they promised to cooperate. So far, one designated bank account in Shiga has been closed.

“Although the information has no coercive power, it can make a difference coming from a supervising government agency,” a Shiga prefectural official said, referring to the Finance Ministry’s clout.

Shiga officials said their efforts have drawn the attention of other prefectures and they have received inquiries from Kyoto, Osaka, Wakayama, Tottori and Hiroshima, among others.

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