Crime & Legal

Japanese police warn that criminals are making most of virus outbreak

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff writer

Burglars breaking into homes where kids have been left alone due to school closures, suspects luring children with the promises of coronavirus cures: These are some of the crimes police are warning against as criminals look to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Aichi Prefecture, a man reportedly broke into a house where a 10-year-old girl was staying by herself in late March. Later the same day, two men burglarized a separate house in the prefecture where only an 11-year-old boy was present, ordering him to “lower his eyes” while they rummaged through the premises, taking cash and an ATM card, according to local media.

In Tokyo, too, reports are emerging of children being targeted by offenders who are exploiting the COVID-19 crisis.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department, a man approached an elementary school girl on the street of Kokubunji in western Tokyo on March 25 and groped her, saying that he was inspecting her for the coronavirus.

Two days later, a man told a girl playing at a park in Taito Ward that he has a “yogurt-flavored candy that works against the coronavirus,” according to the police. The man fled when the girl’s mother approached.

The nationwide spread of COVID-19 prompted many municipalities to close down schools from the beginning of March at the request of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Since then, a nonprofit group in Tokyo has been inundated with calls from parents worried about the safety of their children who are left home unsupervised, according to Mieko Miyata, head of Nihon Kodomo no Anzen Kyoiku Sogo Kenkyujo, which loosely translates to a research center protecting the safety and education of children in Japan.

The school closure request was so abrupt that “many parents have been caught off guard and were forced to leave for work even though their children aren’t used to coping with strangers while they stay at home alone,” Miyata said.

Now that it’s common knowledge that many children are home alone during the day, Miyata also voiced concerns that telephone swindlers known for the notorious “it’s me” scams may start shifting their targets from the elderly to children.

“They might try to coax out of the kids such information as what time their mothers usually leave for work and return home, so that they can take advantage of that bit of knowledge in the future,” she said.

The surest way to deal with these suspicious calls and visits by strangers, she said, is “not to deal with them at all.” Parents, she said, should assure children that they don’t need to answer any doorbells and telephones to spare them the mental burden of deciding which are legitimate and which are not.

Children are not the only victims offenders are trying to rip off.

The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan says scammers across the nation are exploiting the current shortage of face masks to disseminate phishing links and false ads that attempt to coax personal information out of consumers in need of masks.

The center cites a widely circulating link on social media that leads to an online shopping site where consumers are told they can purchase 100 masks for about ¥4,000. The site, the center said, asks consumers to type in their credit card numbers to complete payment.

In other examples of fraud, the consumer affairs center is cautioning against a rise in phone calls from fraudsters pretending to be city officials, who then try to entice people to give up details pertaining to their bank accounts and My Number identification cards. Such swindlers often claim municipalities need to know these pieces of personal information because they are providing cash handouts for households affected by the virus or offering them free COVID-19 testing.

“If you receive phone calls or emails saying they need to know your personal information because they are offering you subsidies, there is a good chance that these are fraudulent. Hang up on these calls immediately and ignore emails,” the center says.

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