Misfortune for some can be entertaining to the rest of us. Microwaved poodles and death-by-sexual-dalliance often have such a ridiculous aura about them that we tend not to identify with the victims because the stupidity inferred precludes any feelings of sympathy.

Something similar informs many people’s reaction to reports of yet another incident of oreore fraud, a swindle carried out over the telephone wherein the caller extracts money from the receiver of the call for alleged improprieties committed by a close relative of said receiver. Initially, the con artists impersonated children or grandchildren of the targeted victims. “Oreore,” which translates as “It’s me, it’s me,” is the first thing the con artist says when someone picks up the phone. If the intended victim doesn’t hang up, the caller plays out his little drama — “I hit a yakuza car with my car and if I don’t pay the guy 2 million yen he’s going to break my legs. Could you transfer the money right now?” — or some such story.

The idea that people fall for such schemes is amusing. My personal favorite was the incident where the caller claimed to be the son of the woman who answered the phone and talked her into sending money for a traffic infraction. It turned out that while the woman was on the phone, the son she thought she was talking to was actually asleep upstairs.

The media loves a good joke as much as the rest of us, and the oreore phenomenon has received a huge amount of press ever since police in Yonago, Tottori Prefecture, first identified it as a criminal trend in 2003. This sort of fraud can only succeed when people don’t know about it, so the increased publicity should have made it almost impossible to pull off.

But that isn’t the case. There were 6,500 offenses of telephone fraud committed in 2003. During the first nine months of 2004, there were 11,000 offenses, accounting for 13 billion yen in swindled money. Are people getting stupider?

Maybe. Certainly, the con artists are getting smarter. The police no longer refer to these crimes as oreore fraud. Now they are called gekijo-gata (“dramatic-type”) fraud, mainly because they often involve a team of con artists, each of whom takes a role.

They are also no longer random. The con artists have information about the person they are calling and use that information to gain instant credibility. Several weeks ago, NHK’s newsmagazine, “Tokuho Shutoken,” tried to analyze why telephone fraud has become so lucrative despite widespread coverage. They did so by looking at several cases in detail.

In one, a 70-year-old man received a call from someone claiming to be a police officer. The “policeman” said that a car driven by the man’s son hit another car and injured a pregnant passenger. The victim of the accident wouldn’t press charges if the man’s son paid a “settlement (jidan).” Though the man was suspicious — his son almost never drives — the “policeman” knew his son’s name and where he worked. More importantly, the caller’s rapid delivery and use of legal terms intimidated the man. He was convinced, but nevertheless called his son’s workplace before going to the bank to transfer the money and found that his son was at his office all along.

The show pointed out that gekijo-gata fraud requires three “tools”: personal information about the person being called, a nontraceable prepaid cellular telephone, and a bank account under a different name for the instant transfer.

The Diet is now discussing legislature to prohibit the buying and selling of bank accounts over the Internet, which is the means by which many con artists obtain the accounts they need. If Japanese people used personal checks for payments the way people in the West did, this sort of swindle would be impossible. Gekijo-gata fraud works because the preferred method of payment in Japan is instant money transfers using ATMs.

A good con artist does not give a victim the time or opportunity to think clearly. In the cases described on the NHK program, the victims said that they had heard about this sort of telephone fraud but never imagined they’d be victims. They were unprepared for the calls, and the emotional shock of hearing that a loved one was in danger made them panic.

Nevertheless, the gullibility of the gekijo-gata victims is as ridiculous as that of the original oreore victims. Some con artists impersonate yakuza, who are by definition frightening, but most now take the roles of persons of authority, such as policemen or lawyers, who are intimidating in a different way. What’s important to note is that these high status individuals ask the people on the other end to become involved in situations that are clearly unethical, if not downright illegal. Why would a policeman act as a go-between for “settlement” money in a traffic accident? The fact that many people fall for this kind of subterfuge indicates that they believe police officers can be pretty fuzzy about ethics.

Or maybe their own ethics are fuzzy. Parents instinctively want to protect their children, but shouldn’t they also insist that their children take responsibility for problems that they may have had a hand in creating? Why should a father bail out a son who is at fault in a traffic accident? Victims of oreore fraud seem laughably naive, while victims of gekijo-gata fraud are tripped up by their desire to solve problems as quietly and quickly as possible, even if it means covering up a crime.