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When apo-den telephone scams take deadly turns

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

On Feb. 28, the body of Kuniko Kato, 80, was found in her ransacked apartment in Tokyo’s Koto Ward. Her wrists had been bound with clear plastic wrap and her mouth and ankles bound with duct tape. While the specific cause of death has not been made public, she appeared to have suffocated. A police search of the crime scene turned up some ¥1.3 million in a bookshelf and about ¥200,000 in a billfold. A metal strongbox tucked into a closet did not appear to have been disturbed.

A short time earlier, Kato had confided to a male acquaintance that an unknown caller had asked her over the telephone, “Have you got money?”

The perpetrators involved in the death of Kato apparently learned that her son was a dentist, and impersonated him to request funds to “transfer a patient to another hospital.”

“A team of crooks can pull off a caper by forcing their way in and leaving within about half an hour,” Masaru Hagiuda, a former police investigator in Tokyo, is quoted as saying in Friday (March 29). “It’s extremely common among seniors to stash money at home,” adds Itsuo Tobimatsu, a former detective from Hyogo Prefecture.

Veteran crime reporter Atsushi Mizoguchi concurs. Writing in Nikkan Gendai (March 26), he notes one of the main reasons the thieves target the elderly is because many keep large sums of cash in their homes (“A problem exacerbated by the low interest rates paid by banks,” he pointed out.) Known colloquially as tansu yokin (chest of drawers savings) the hoarded funds are seen by crooks as “buried treasure” and an easy target.

Mizoguchi predicts that as long as people persist in holding on to large amounts of cash, such crimes are likely to increase.

A review of security camera footage in the vicinity of Kato’s apartment eventually enabled police to track down three suspects. They included Tatsumi Komatsuzono, a 27-year-old construction worker and former mixed martial artist from Kanagawa Prefecture who had belonged to a gang of hot-rodders, and two others: Hiroki Sue and Yuta Sakai, both 22 and from the eastern part of Nagano Prefecture. The trio is suspected of involvement in at least two similar robberies in Tokyo.

Shukan Bunshun (March 28) noted that Sue had a felony record, having been charged with violation of the anti-stalking law. Last year he had ignored a restraining order to keep him from approaching his former girlfriend, whom he had severely beaten in a dispute over money.

Shukan Jitsuwa (March 28) called Sue and his cohorts han-gure, a term for loosely organized groups of low-level hoods sometimes described in English reportage as “former members of hot-rod gangs” or “nondesignated crime groups.” The three had added a new twist to the type of crime called apo-den sagi (fraud via telephone appointment).

Apo-den is short for apointomento denwa, (telephone appointment). Rather than make efforts to bilk the intended victim through some sort of subterfuge, the criminals in this case adopted a new modus operandi of apo-den gōtō (robbery), simply forcing their way into the victims’ homes and then grabbing whatever cash or valuables they found on the premises.

Shukan Gendai (April 6) credits a heretofore unknown section in the Tokyo Metropolitan Police with the apprehension of the three suspects. It goes by the acronym SSBC, which stands for Sosa Shien Bunseki Center (Investigation Support Analysis Center). Launched in April 2009, it is staffed by a team of experienced mid-career detectives and skilled civilian technicians, employed at a ratio of 6 to 4.

The article went into step-by-step details of police efforts to track the suspects, from checking license numbers shot by security cameras in the vicinity of the crime to tracking their suspects’ movements on the expressway through the vehicle’s electronic toll-collection device.

The cyber cops electronically trailed the suspects’ car, a silver Suzuki Wagon R, to a convenience store in Kawasaki where the felons felt, because they were beyond the boundary of Tokyo, it would be safe to let down their guards. One suspect was determined to regularly patronize the store, indicating he lived close by. By March 13, all three were in police custody — albeit maintaining their innocence.

“Crooks keep coming up with new variations on their scams, so keeping up with them has been like a game of cat and mouse,” Tokyo-based attorney Ryo Wakai tells Weekly Playboy (April 8).

Despite success in preventing transfers to swindlers’ accounts, such predatory crimes are still appallingly common. In the Tokyo metropolitan area, 34,658 were reported last year, a year-on-year increase of 8,747 cases. And with 6,368 incidents already reported by the end of February, this year appears likely to eclipse 2018.

Last year some 2,700 individuals were prosecuted on charges of fraud. Although calls to make the penalties more severe have increased, currently offenders of the “It’s me, send money” scams face up to 10 years imprisonment. On the other hand, homicide in the process of a robbery provides for capital punishment or life imprisonment. If a victim dies during commission of a robbery, a sentence of up to 30 years imprisonment applies.

Weekly Playboy advises its readers on methods to protect their elderly parents from such depredations. A former police detective, Yuji Yoshikawa, tells the magazine that the criminals typically plan their schemes carefully, first obtaining name lists of retirees and focusing on neighborhoods with numerous elderly residents.

“Ninety percent of calls by fraudsters are made to conventional land-line telephones in the victims’ homes,” notes the aforementioned attorney Wakai, who advises halting use of land lines in favor of mobile phones. If land lines are retained, the subscriber should add caller ID to screen out unfamiliar callers. “Using an answering machine is also effective,” he added.

With Mother’s Day approaching, it’s a good time to look into devices that afford protection, Weekly Playboy concludes.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.