Tricksters steal Japanese hearts and money | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 19.04.2013
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Tricksters steal Japanese hearts and money

With margins shrinking for Japan's criminals, they're becoming more creative in their scams to separate people from their cash. The gullibility of many Japanese is rooted in the nation's traditionally low crime rate.

It took the victim more than a year to realize that he was being fooled, but in that time he had spent around Y2.7 million (20,692 euros) on what he believed was a burgeoning relationship with a beautiful young pop star. And the man - who has only been identified as being in his 20s and from Tokyo, to spare his blushes even further - was only one of thousands of people conned out of cash by the staff of a company named Aglaia Japan.

In March, 34-year-old Yusuke Aikawa, the president of the now-defunct online dating agency, was indicted for violation of the Organized Crime Law and fraud after police determined that his company had defrauded Y210 million (€1.61 million) from at least 2,100 people.

Tokyo city view

Generally the crime rate is quite low in Japan, even in the capital

The authorities in Japan have long been warning the public not to fall for scams that are simply too good to be true, but a steady stream of cases are being heard in courts across the country.

Mails from a pop star

In the case of Aglaia Japan, the unnamed victim began receiving mails through the dating service from a person who signed herself as "Atchan from AKB48." Atchan is the nickname of Atsuko Maeda, a former member of the hugely popular all-girl pop group AKB48.

The victim admitted that he replied to the initial mails but quickly got caught up in the relationship.

His new friend would send mails stating "I go on stage in five minutes" or "We have just finished a performance" that convinced him he was really communicating with the star.

In truth, dozens of Aglaia Japan staff were scouring the blogs and fan sites of Maeda to glean nuggets of genuine information that gave their messages an authentic ring.

Naturally, the mail exchanges could only be conducted through the dating service's web site and, once the initial free trial period had expired, the man was charged Y450 (3.45 euros) for every mail he sent.

People release balloons to celebrate the New Year (KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

Japanese people tend to have faith in their fellow citizens

To keep stringing the man along, the company even went as far as to agree to meet him. The man arrived at a train station in central Tokyo at the agreed time, only to receive a new message from his fictional friend to say that her manager had arrived suddenly and that she would not be able to make the rendezvous.

Finally, the man realized that he had been conned.

'I cannot forgive'

"She had become such an indispensable presence," the man told investigators, according to the Mainichi newspaper. "I cannot forgive them for what they did."

Tom Gill, a professor of anthropology at Tokyo's Meiji Gakuin University, can believe it and expects to see more cases in the future, no matter how many times the police issue warnings. "People want to believe what they're told, so they switch off their usual skepticism in these situations and that's dangerous," he told Deutsche Welle. "It's wish-fulfillment."

"But you do have to wonder about the people falling for these scams because they have been around for so long and there are so many warnings in so many prominent places that it is hard to believe that people still fall for it," he said.

In another recent case, a 73-year-old woman received a phone call from a person who claimed to be from a company that helped people to invest in foreign currency. The fast-talking strange assured her that she would reap a tidy profit if she invested in Uzbek currency, so she mailed the man Y20 million (153,544 euros) in cash.

The currency that she received in return may have had a lot of zeroes printed on it but it was worth far less then the amount she had paid for it.

'Virtual city' con

In March, a company president was given a three-year prison term for defrauding 15 investors out of Y11 million (84,458 euros) that was to be sunk into an online "virtual city."

Aikawa's teams at Aglaia varied their approaches for different clients and had a remarkable success rate.

One woman in her 40s struck up a relationship through the site with a fictional 29-year-old man who convinced her that he had been in an accident and needed money for a series of operations. The woman transferred more than Y1.5 million (11,508 euros) to bank accounts without even meeting the man face-to-face.

Japan Wirtschaft Zentralbank in Tokio Gebäude

Japan's economy has been declining

In another case, a single mother in her 50s began communicating with "a doctor" in Tokyo who claimed to be suffering some sort of mental illness. Nevertheless, he promised to marry her as soon as he was well and they arranged to meet in Tokyo. By the time she realized her mistake, the woman had spent Y1.1 million (8,439 euros).

The surge in such targeted fraud can be traced back to the emergence in the early 1990s of what has been dubbed the "Ore, ore" scam.

'Ore, ore' scam

The name comes from the words that the con-artist says hurriedly as soon as the victim picks up the phone and can be translated as "Hey, hey!" The criminals make dozens of cold-calls until they come across someone they are able to fool into believing they are a relative in dire need of assistance; in some cases they claim they have been in a car crash and need money to pay for the repairs, or that they themselves have been robbed and need cash to get home.

The helpful victim, convinced that he or she is helping a member of the family, quickly transfers money to the callers' bank account - where it promptly disappears. In some cases, the same victims - most of whom are elderly and trusting - have been talked into parting with cash on multiple occasions for a variety of reasons.

Professor Gill shakes his head. "Japan has a very low crime rate and therefore people here have a heightened sense of security," he points out. "So on the rare occasions when someone wants to take advantage of them it is a lot easier here than in other societies."

Professor Gill suggests this is a variation of "heiwa boke," the phrase that brings together the two characters that mean "peace" and "senility." "Japan has been a peaceful country for a long time, but people in generations past had to experience the war, poverty, illness and they would not fall for these cons because they thought on their feet," he said. "But modern Japan has been lulled into this sense of security and serenity by their prosperity, so it's a lot easier to take advantage of these people."

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