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Telephone manufacturers unveil the perfect Christmas gift to combat bank transfer scams

by Jake Adelstein

Contributing Writer

Furikome sagi (bank transfer scams) have become such an entrenched part of life in Japan that you can’t even make a bank transfer via an ATM these days without first acknowledging a notice reminding you to refrain from sending money to people you don’t know.

Still, such scams continue to deceive people, especially the elderly, in spite of ongoing warnings from the National Police Agency. The fraudulent activity can have serious consequences.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department, a Tokyo woman in her 70s was cheated out of about ¥1.4 million in a bank transfer scam in January 2018. The woman committed suicide two weeks after she filed a criminal complaint with the police. In a note, the woman said she felt depressed after falling for the fraud.

In 2018, the National Police Agency found that more than 90 percent of the people they interviewed who had lost money in bank transfer scams had known such fraudulent activity existed but were fooled anyway.

Bank transfer scams take many forms. Family emergency scams are the most common variety, in which a scammer calls claiming to be the daughter or son of the person they’re contacting and requests a sum of money to extricate themselves from trouble such as a loan or traffic fine. Fake refund scams and fake billing scams are other variations.

Many respondents to the National Police Agency survey said the voice on the other end of the phone often sounded like a family member or that they were so worried about that person’s welfare they didn’t stop to question what was happening.

Others believed the pretext for needing the money in the first place appeared plausible. A number of them even handed over ATM cards or hard cash to scammers who came to their homes to collect funds.

The National Police Agency notes that a total of ¥35.6 billion was lost in bank transfer scams in 2018. Many of these victims received the fraudulent call on a land line at their homes. Senior citizens in Japan tend to field the majority of calls on land lines these days, and that’s how many of the victims were contacted.

To combat this, Sharp Corp. released a new model of land line telephone in November that has been designed to prevent people from falling for such scams — and other manufacturers appear to be following suit.

Sharp consulted with the Metro Police Department’s Crime Prevention Headquarters and the Osaka Police when conceptualizing the design of the new phones.

The new models have a built-in recorder. Whenever the phone receives a call from an unknown contact, it plays the following message before the phone even rings: “For crime prevention reasons, this conversation will be recorded.”

This is designed to deter scammers from continuing with the call, as it’s assumed that most criminals wouldn’t be foolish enough to leave evidence.

If the caller doesn’t hang up, the phone plays another message.

“This telephone is now in wire transfer fraud prevention mode,” it says. “Excuse me, but please state your name.”

The receiver of the call can then hear that person’s name and voice before answering the phone.

It’s then possible to refuse a call and add the person’s name to a list of blocked numbers with the simple press of a button. The next time a call is received from this name or number, a red light flashes as a warning to the recipient.

If the call is from someone trusted, however, that person can be added to a list of trusted numbers with the push of another button.

The next time this person calls, a green light will light up to inform receivers that it’s safe to answer and be accompanied by a display of the caller’s name and telephone number.

Panasonic also sells a land-line telephone model with many of the same functions to prevent people from falling prey to scammers.

Both models are easy for the elderly and people with impaired vision to use, as the display is prominent. The designs are actually very self-intuitive.

And so if you know an elderly person living in Japan, such a phone might make the perfect Christmas present. Unless, that is, they somehow manage to block your calls. With that in mind, it’s probably better to consult them before ordering a model first.

Dark Side of the Rising Sun is a monthly column that takes a behind-the-scenes look at news in Japan.