Telephone swindlers adapt; old folks don’t

January 6th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

It sounds so 2004, but the scourge of furikome sagi (bank transfer swindles), formerly known by the less sophisticated term “ore-ore sagi” (It’s me! It’s me! swindles), is still very much a problem even if the media no longer finds it interesting enough to cover. According to the National Police Agency, as of Nov. 10, there were 6,030 reported cases of telephone fraud nationwide for the year 2010 in which a total of ¥7.2 billion had been swindled. And despite the change in terminology and huge publicity campaign that brought attention to the problem, “ore-ore” cases, in which swindlers pretend to be children or grandchildren of the persons they call, pleading for money to solve a pending debt crisis or pay off someone for a slight, are still a popular form of con. However, a more common method in the last couple of years has been callers pretending to be police officers actually investigating swindling rackets. The fake officers tell the people they call that they may be the victim of a bank swindle and need their bank cards and passwords in order to make sure their accounts are safe. Then they drop by, dressed as bank officials, to collect the cards and information. Other con jobs involve the sale of previously unlisted stocks, “fees” for converting television systems from analog to digital, and government handouts (kyufukin), which somehow requires the recipient of the handout to first pay a large amount of money.

It's me!: Poster of swindling suspects in a post office

Even without all the intense publicity campaigns carried out by the NPA and individual banks to warn citizens about the dangers of furikome sagi, one would think that people would be naturally suspicious of anyone asking for such large amounts of money. But it seems people can still be quite gullible, especially elderly people. A recent Asahi Shimbun article related how a woman in her 70s went up to a teller in a Tokyo bank and asked to have ¥1.5 million from her account transferred to another account she had written down on a piece of paper. The teller, trained to intercept such suspicious transfers, asked the woman what it was for. The woman wouldn’t explained and became desperate, screaming at the teller to make the transfer, which the teller did. However, once the woman left the bank, the teller’s supervisor stopped the transfer and checked the receiving account, which he discovered had only been set up a few days before. He then called the woman and told her he thought the account was fake, but the woman still didn’t believe him. “Yesterday, my son called me and said he had guaranteed a loan for a friend who defaulted and had to pay it back immediately,” she explained. When the bank employee asked for her son’s telephone number, she refused. Fortunately, the son happened to drop by his mother’s house that day just as the swindler called asking why the money hadn’t been transferred yet.

This is what banks and the police have to contend with. In the case cited above, the police discovered that the swindling team had information about the woman’s family and were able to convince her that the caller was her son (with a cold, thus explaining the change in tone). However, in more and more cases, at least 40 percent in 2010, swindlers didn’t utilize telephones, opting instead for face-to-face encounters. Last year, police arrested 254 swindlers, 67 of whom were “ambushed” outside victims’ homes. Swindlers also try to avoid ATMs now, since many have security cameras and other devices that can pinpoint when a suspicious withdrawal takes place. In any case, criminals seem to be a lot more resourceful than old people.

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