The latest annual police data on what they call special fraud cases — such as the “it’s me” scheme of swindling senior citizens by posing as relatives in need of urgent help — highlight the vulnerability of the nation’s increasing elderly population to such crimes, especially the growing ranks of them who live alone.

As the police crack down on such crimes with mixed success, local communities can also help to protect potential victims by ensuring that their elderly residents are not isolated.

Total losses from such frauds — which also include cases in which the swindlers lure the victims to bank ATMs with bogus stories of tax refunds as well as the sale of worthless financial products — reached a record ¥55.9 billion last year, according to the National Police Agency.

Nearly 80 percent of the roughly 14,000 victims of those frauds were aged 65 or older and about three-quarters of them were women. NPA chief Masahito Kanetaka said the fraudsters target society’s rapidly increasing elderly members, on whom the nation’s personal financial assets concentrate.

It’s a game of cat and mouse between the police and the swindlers, who keep devising new cunning ways of cheating their victims as the police step up their campaign to stop them. Total damage from “it’s me” fraud cases, which stood at ¥14.5 billion in 2007, declined to ¥5.2 billion two years later as a result of police crackdowns, but the figure has again increased to reach ¥17.4 billion in 2014.

Initially the typical fraud involved a swindler making a phone call to a senior citizen while posing as the victim’s son or grandson in trouble and asking the victim to transfer money at an ATM.

After the police worked with financial institutions to tighten surveillance of bank ATMs and to lower the upper limit on ATM transactions, swindlers then started sending people to pick up the victims’ cash in person or to convince the victims to send money via postal and parcel delivery.

In 2014, the number of cases in which victims were told to send money — thus enabling swindlers to avoid the risk of coming into direct contact with victims as well as to circumvent the limits on ATM transactions — rose 57 percent from the previous year, with the average amount of damage in each case reaching ¥7.38 million.

Last year alone, the police either arrested or sent up investigation papers on 1,990 suspects for involvement in those frauds, an increase of 12 percent.

But most of those arrested had played minor roles in the schemes. They included, for example, teenagers who merely made the phone calls or picked up the money.

Meanwhile, ringleaders of the schemes remained at large and free to continue their criminal activities after recruiting new help, according to the police.

The profiles of typical fraud victims reflect the rapid aging of Japan’s society, in which one of four people is at least 65 years old. In 2010, about 30 percent of households led by senior citizens were single-member households. The government estimates the figure will rise to nearly 40 percent within 20 years.

Many fraud victims might not have fallen into the swindlers’ traps if they had had someone close by to consult with. As elderly people who have regular interaction with neighbors are less likely to become fraud victims, local communities have an important role to play in protecting their elderly members.

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