Today’s communities in Japan, especially impersonal big cities, are becoming hostile places in many ways for elderly people living alone. New gangs of criminals, who often pose as kind and soft-spoken business operators, are eager to swindle the elderly out of their life savings. These con artists know all too well that elderly people who live in isolation and suffer from a weakening sense of judgment are easy targets.

An increasing number of malicious incidents involving fraudulent telephone or door-to-door sales are being reported in a wide range of fields — including termite eradication, health food sales, commodity-futures trading, foreign-exchange deposit transactions and home renovation.

In one typical case that occurred in the suburbs of Tokyo, a self-styled home renovator visited two elderly sisters, aged 80 and 78, and convinced them that their home was in dire need of renovation. He repeatedly carried out needless renovation work amounting to more than 50 million, yen and coerced the sisters into handing over their savings of 40 million yen. Later it was learned that the sisters suffered from senile dementia, making them particularly vulnerable.

The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan (NCAC) reports that, in fiscal 2004, there were about 116,000 cases of people aged 70 and over seeking public-service consultations. Last month, the Metropolitan Police Department arrested four former salesmen of a housing-renovation group in Tokyo on suspicion of violating the Special Commodity Transaction Law (false notification). They are charged with repeated coercive business practices in an organized manner, concluding contracts worth 14 billion yen with 5,400 people in 34 prefectures in the past three years. They are accused of falsely convincing their elderly targets that their homes had hidden defects above the ceiling or below the floor.

Since 2002, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has posted on its Web site each year a list of the names of 20 or so companies that have received administrative punishment for violating the Special Commodity Transaction Law, but this is likely only the tip of the iceberg.

Protecting the aged against malicious business fraud requires both private and public measures. On the private level, those with elderly parents or other relatives living alone should visit them more frequently. Not only can the dialogue that accompanies such visits help to slow the progress of aging both mentally and physically, but there is also a greater chance of discovering signs of troubling situations involving fraud.

Many elderly people do not have anyone nearby with whom they can consult. That is one reason why so many cases of fraud take place. If people suspect that they may have become a fraud target, they should seek advice by telephoning public organizations, such as the NCAC or their local government’s consumer advisory center. They can find out useful information from these sources, such as the fact that contracts have cooling-off periods during which they may be canceled.

Nonetheless, sometimes elderly persons do not realize when they have been duped or feel inclined to conceal the incident to hide their shame. For this reason, it is necessary to seek the cooperation of people who come into contact with elderly persons on a daily basis, such as home helpers and welfare officers.

A revision of the Commodity Transaction Law went into effect in May, targeting cases in which tricksters lure ordinary consumers into large and risky transactions by persuading them that a big transaction can be conducted with just a little money. To prevent such incidents, the revised law tightens regulations and makes it obligatory for companies concerned to confirm that the consumer is willing to accept canvassing regarding transactions in futures trading.

In 2003, the NCAC received nearly 8,000 counseling cases concerning trouble in this business. According to a study group of voluntary lawyers and others set up for victim relief, most fraud victims had no previous experience in such transactions. In addition, a revision of the Financial Futures Transaction Law recently went into effect to tighten regulations on foreign-exchange deposit transactions.

There appears to be no end to the infestation of businesses that manipulate their salespeople with carrots and sticks, and try to trick consumers into concluding damaging contracts. We must not let such fraudulent operators, who prey on the innocence of consumers, get away with such crimes. Stronger measures should be taken to bolster consumer education and tighten legal controls over such businesses.

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