Phone Fraud Fleeces the Unsuspecting

Cynics might proclaim the Captain to be a fraud. Superficially, a case could be made; he's lazy, an alcoholic, and yet still has a job. Indeed, a contradiction. But how many frauds can hammer out top-notch copy while nursing a two-day, no-sleep hangover?

This week our hero delves into the fast and expanding world of phone fraud, Japanese-style. It's a story that'll make you think twice before answering that next phone call. After all, it could be the Captain on the other end trying to trick you out of money to buy beer...

For Mrs. A (as she will be referred to in this story), the morning started off rather quietly. This housewife from Yamaguchi Prefecture assumed the day would amount to a little housework and some time at the computer. But after one phone call, it disintegrated into the worst day of her life.

It is around noon. The caller says he is a policeman. "First, relax, and listen carefully," he cautions. "Your husband has been in an accident which is now under investigation. He fell asleep at the wheel of his car."

"He's with me now," the policeman continues, "and he's not injured, but he caused quite a bit of damage to another car, one owned by a Mr. Ishii of Hiroshima."

The policeman hands the phone to her husband so as a short exchange with his wife will be possible. Some random, slurred speech and a garbled "sorry" is all that he can muster. He's a frantic mess.

She drops the receiver to her side in shock.

After jotting down Mr. Ishii's contact information, she calls him, whereby she is informed of the total cost of the repairs. After all, her husband can't take of this matter himself in the state he is in, or so says the policeman.

From the repair shop, Mr. Ishii explains, "Having the insurance company take care of it is not a possibility given that I need the car fixed immediately for my work."

Now panicked herself, Mrs. A rushes off on her bicycle to make a bank transfer totaling nearly 2 million yen to Mr. Ishii's post office account.

But, in the end, it was all just a scam. Her husband had in fact really been working away at his office. The scenario was merely a choreographed ruse preformed by a group of fraudsters playing various roles over the phone.

This type of fraud is termed ore ore sagi ("It's me" fraud), and is an increasing crime targeting primarily the elderly. And with Japan being a cash society in which debt holds great shame, it is a problem that likely won't be going away soon.

The performers have to be convincing.

"They were so realistic," she recalls of the fraudsters' acting talent. "The person playing my husband really seemed to be crying."

Instilling panic is a necessity. In this state, the victim becomes much more pliable. Mrs. A was told by the policeman that likely a trip to the court would be necessary for her husband. As well, he said that if her husband's condition didn't improve soon he'd probably have to go to the hospital.

"In thinking back," Mrs. A says now, "I can now see that much of the incident was implausible, but at the time I was willing to believe anything."

For her, all critical thinking was lost. When the policeman read off his phone number, he did so in a manner that ignored the standard location of hyphens in a nine-digit number. She realizes now that by moving the first hyphen to after the fourth digit, instead of the second, as is typical, he was able to slightly conceal that the number was a standard "06" prefix, obviously that of an Osaka landline, and not, as he said, "my car's wireless number." Further, why was a policeman asking about money in such a situation? All a part of being caught up in the moment, she assumes.

Fear is one thing, but tact is another. One slip by the tricksters and the jig, as they say, could be up. Attaining a balance of fright and concern for the victim's well-being is important. Mrs. A remembers the policeman rounding off the total amount she had to deposit from 1,982,620 to 1,982,000 yen, with him even proclaiming over the phone, "I'm a nice guy, right?"

Last year such scams in Japan were highly profitable. Police statistics showed that over 2.3 billion yen was squeezed from roughly 4,000 unsuspecting victims. The growth was immense.

Success bred popularity. The early part of last year only saw a handful of such cases. But by year's end, the police were recording over 1,000 incidents each month.

The names, phone numbers, and other details (in Mrs. A's situation, even her apartment building name) are often obtained through corporate data leaks of customer information. Mrs. A thinks the perpetrators received her information through a convenience store membership club.

The biggest such incident in Japan occurred earlier this month when Softbank Corp.'s Yahoo! BB Internet provider had information on 4.52 million subscribers stolen. This came soon after 2 million customers of Sanyo Shinpan Finance Co., a consumer finance firm, had their private information leaked.

Thus far, loan shark organizations tied to yakuza groups have been fingered as many of the perpetrators. While typically targeting senior citizens living alone - though not the case with the 40-year old Mrs. A - these impersonators have ranged from sons asking mothers for money for car repairs to women seeking funds from lovers for an abortion.

The crimes prey on a cultural trait, a social stigma that plays right into these wily weasels' hands: Japan attaches great shame to debt. Though Mrs. A maintains that her willingness to pay was instigated entirely by a want to help her husband, she says, "A person who will pay the money is seen as honest, strong, and responsible."

Given this, and the fact that Japan is a society functioning primarily on cash, generally shunning stock and other investments, swindling money out of people for non-existent problems becomes the perfect scam. (Mrs. A also said she also received multiple "past-due" notices from loan companies for loans she never took out.)

Her story, however, has a somewhat happy ending. On the way to the bank that day, she paused, thinking that what was happening had to be a dream; it was all so unreal. So she decided to call her husband, who informed her that no accident had taken place. Relieved, yet shaken and in tears, she retold the story to a real police officer at a nearby station.

Since she didn't pay any money in the end, the police are not going to investigate the case further. Later the would-be swindlers called back wondering about the transaction, but once she told them she had called her husband's office, the line was cut.

Mrs. A remains upbeat, even scoffing at friends and relatives who have made jokes about her falling for a trick typically intended for older people.

"It was a terrible day," she says, "but at least I didn't pay the money. So if everyone wants to have a laugh at my expense, that's fine."

Note: Ai Inoue and Sayaka Watanabe contributed to this report from the Tokyo Bureau.

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