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The leader of a phone fraud ring has been arrested on suspicion of bilking unwitting victims for than 20 billion yen from December 2003 to January 2005, according to investigative sources.

The suspect, Masashi Tanaka, 32, of no fixed address, headed the ring composed of more than 10 groups, according to joint investigations by Tokyo, Yamaguchi and Oita police.

Like business corporations, the groups were divided into branches and teams, each with a leader. The groups paid a portion of the funds they swindled to Tanaka, the sources said.

Investigations are under way to confirm whether some of the funds were funneled into groups affiliated with the Sumiyoshi-kai major underworld syndicate.

Tanaka’s arrest brought to 90 the number of people apprehended in the case, including 26 minors.

In phone fraud cases, callers solicit money from unsuspecting victims.

Three methods are popular — employing the “It’s me” tactic, in which someone impersonates the relative of an elderly person and asks for money. The others are demanding a fictitious payment or demanding money to guarantee fictitious loans.

The National Police Agency has designated them as “remittance-soliciting fraud” following the crime’s rapid diversification from the “It’s me” scam.