Recently, my partner renewed her drivers license and was waiting in line to pay her fee. The clerk asked the elderly man waiting in front of her if he wanted to join the Japan Traffic Safety Association for an additional fee. She rattled off a memorized spiel, and after the intimidated old man assented weakly she handed him his change.

This transaction took place at a police station, whose walls were adorned with posters publicizing the National Police Agency’s latest assault on furikome sagi swindling schemes. The posters warn citizens about the dangers of criminal groups who target the elderly, calling them on the phone and fooling them into giving them money via direct deposit (furikome). Though the clerk’s appeal was not dishonest, the dynamic in play during her brief and rapid presentation wasn’t much different from the one swindlers count on to bilk their victims.

It’s a dynamic that appears to be paying off. The NPA reports that last year the amount of money conned out of people through such swindles was ¥12.8 billion, 26.7 percent more than the amount in 2010. Moreover, the number of successful and unsuccessful “attempts” at swindles reported to police in 2011 was 6,255, or 5.8 percent less than the number in 2010, thus indicating that swindlers are becoming more efficient.

Late last year, the popular comic impressionist Korokke became the face of the NPA antiswindling campaign, and he now appears on official posters and in NHK public-service announcements warning elderly people to be alert. As an entertainer, Korokke’s appeal cuts across all generations, and his promotional efficacy may in some ways work against the campaign’s purposes. At the PR event to launch his participation, he offered some hilarious impersonations of Japanese celebrities popular with old folks. The attending officials were laughing so hard it’s not clear if the message got through. Similarly, in the public-service announcements he impersonates an old lady befuddled by a phone call from her “grandson,” and the pertinent point may be lost in the levity. Sure it’s a serious problem, but confused old people are just so funny.

Much is made in the press of how criminal groups have constantly reconfigured their scams to stay one step ahead of publicity that tells people what to be on the lookout for. In the middle of the last decade, when such swindles first became news, they were called ore-ore sagi, “Ore-ore!” being the standard opening line con men would use (“It’s me! It’s me!”) when they called an old person, pretending to be a relative who was in deep trouble and needing a large amount of cash to make the problem go away.

Swindlers continue to use conventional fraud, guaranteeing high returns for investments in what turn out to be nonexistent funds or projects. In some cases, they’ve even convinced the victim that he or she already has an investment, and that in order to collect the investor has to pay, in cash, a fee to a special agent who will drop by the house. Lately, handovers of cash (tewatashi) have become the preferred method among criminal groups, since banks have limited ATM withdrawals in order to head off these sorts of swindles.

But if you pay attention to the news, you’ll find that “ore-ore” is still the most profitable method. One NPA representative told the magazine Insight that swindlers are taking advantage of the spirit of kizuna (interpersonal bonds) that has become topical since the March 11 disaster. Among phone-scam victims reported in recent weeks are a 64-year-old Chiba woman who paid ¥3 million to a “nephew” caught with his hand in the company till, a 78-year-old Tokyo woman who lent ¥6 million to her “son” after he lost a “company bag” containing cash, and another Chiba woman who sent a total of ¥7.5 million in six installments over a five-day period to someone claiming to be her son in order to “take care of” his girlfriend’s pregnancy. What’s notable about this last case is that the victim and her real married son live on the same piece of property.

Reduced cognitive function has something to do with the success of this type of swindle, but it’s not the whole story. On his home page, social psychologist Kimiaki Nishida of Shizuoka University explains that the majority of elderly victims he interviewed say they were aware of the swindling problem before they were conned and never imagined that they could fall for such schemes. But swindlers talk fast, getting immediately to the point so as not to allow the victim any time to dwell on what they’re saying. Nishida says that the victims’ immediate reaction is panic, since they’ve been told the problem has to be solved right away. Skepticism is overwhelmed by the urge to act. It’s why bank employees have been told to look for signs of distress among elderly customers trying to make big cash withdrawals.

A major portion of successful “ore-ore” swindles involve elderly female victims and callers posing as sons or grandsons who have done something dumb or irresponsible. This combination suggests a certain degree of predictability in relationships between mothers and male progeny. Of course, the vast majority of these phone calls never get past “hello,” but neither the NPA nor Nishida has revealed whether any potential victim has told the caller to take care of his own mess.

The real reason these crimes proliferate despite intense ongoing awareness campaigns is that the pool of potential victims keeps getting larger. There are more elderly people today than there were yesterday, and they have a lot of cash socked away.

In a sense, swindlers are successful at something the government has been trying to do for years — parting seniors from their dormant savings. The government wants them to invest, but old folks are averse to risk. It’s why mutual funds have never been popular in Japan. However, they’ll apparently give their life savings to a son who desperately needs money to pay off a gambling debt. It’s what kizuna is all about.

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