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Sunday, May 6, 2001

Think you're safe? Think again

It could happen to you


Staff writer

Japan has long enjoyed a reputation for being one of the safest countries in the world. It's said that you can trust your neighbors here. That there's little need to be constantly worried about your belongings. That you can walk the streets safely at night.

But is this sense of security starting to erode? Faced with daily reports of random crimes, it's hard for the average citizen not to feel a little uneasy.

Although there has been no major increase in felonies for decades and the national murder rate is still comparatively low, the number of crimes reported across the country has been increasing steadily. Among those, larceny ranks the highest. Out of 2.17 million reported cases of crime in 1999, 90 percent were theft-related, according to the National Police Department's 2000 white paper.

What brought out the thieves? Tough economic times? Perhaps, but it would seem that Japan's peace-loving reputation and overtrustworthy nature has contributed to its vulnerability, at home and abroad.

In its annual white paper, the NPD reported an increase in the role of organized crime in thefts. Burglars work in teams, scouting locations and keeping watch. Stolen goods are also more easily absorbed by the black market.

And why are Japanese tourists so frequently targeted by pick-pockets and scam artists? Aside from their country's reputation for prosperity, it is because most Japanese people abroad are easy targets, unassuming and unsuspecting.

Could it be that Japan is suffering from a false sense of security?

Clean sweep

It took Kazumi Kataoka (not her real name) three days to realize that her Yokohama apartment had been burgled. One Sunday, her husband couldn't find his inkan seal, and then the couple discovered other valuable items, including their bankbooks, credit cards and some fine jewelry, were also missing.

Various things pointed to the break-in having occurred on the previous Thursday, but they couldn't remember finding anything amiss upon returning home that evening. The door had been locked, there was no sign of forced entry and everything looked in place.

"If my husband had not needed to use his seal on Sunday, we would have remained unaware of being burgled even longer -- it could have been months," Kataoka says.

After the discovery, they canceled their credit cards and changed their bank account numbers, locks and telephone number and installed a burglar alarm. "Even so, I still feel uneasy," Kataoka says. "Whenever we go out, we leave the lights and TV on to give the impression someone is home."

Experiences like the Kataokas' are not unusual. Ransacking homes and stealing anything of value is an outmoded style of burglary. Today's thieves use more sophisticated means of gaining entry into homes, are more selective about what they steal and are careful not to leave any sign of intrusion.

This makes sense if you consider that a stolen television set or stereo, for example, would yield considerably less cash than a credit card or bankbook, ID and personal seal. By leaving victims' homes in order, burglars are buying time to make use of their booty and confusing attempts to ascertain when and by whom the crime was committed.

The number of burglaries committed in Japan is rising significantly. Nearly 261,000 cases were reported in 1999, up by about 23,300 from the previous year. Lock-picking crimes, particularly, are a cause of concern. According to the Metropolitan Police Department, some 11,100 private residences in the Tokyo area alone had their locks picked last year.

Not bad for a city of 13 million people, you might think. But the comparative statistics are alarming: Those 11,100 cases represent an 81 percent increase in lock-picking burglaries over the previous year. In 1996, when data first became available, lock-picking cases in Tokyo numbered just over 100.

Surrounding prefectures are faring little better. According to the Saitama Prefectural Police, in 1998 there were just nine cases of burglary thought to involve lock-picking. In 2000, that figure jumped to 2,429.

Replacing old locks with more sophisticated ones is considered the best protection against lock-pickers. With public awareness growing, more households have upgraded. Perhaps because of this, the number of lock-picking cases in Tokyo from January to March fell to just a third of the level of the corresponding period last year, according to the MPD.

While urbanites tend to be indifferent about others, Shigeo Tosaka of Keibi Hosho Co., a leading security-service company, says that making friends with your neighbors will help reduce the chance of becoming victims of burglary.

"It is important to have someone who knows you and pays attention to your home while you are not there," Tosaka says. "After all, what burglars fear most is to be seen."

Gone in 60 seconds

Three years ago, on an early December morning, Toshiki Inomata (not his real name) arrived at the car park where he kept his Land Cruiser and found in his designated spot not 6.5 million yen worth of recreational vehicle but fragments of broken glass.

As the vehicle was covered by insurance, he was able to purchase a new one just three months later. This time, he installed a car alarm and security system that immobilizes his ignition -- smart thinking, because since then there have been three more theft attempts made on his car.

According to the National Police Agency, annual cases of car theft had hovered around 35,000 for at least a decade until 1998, then suddenly jumped to 43,000 in 1999 and leapt again to 56,000 in 2000.

International crime syndicates specializing in auto theft are the culprits in many of these cases, says Tsuyoshi Suzuki, leader of the Automobile Theft Prevention Office of the Marine & Fire Insurance Association of Japan. They steal cars -- luxury models and RVs, in particular -- off of Japan's roads and sell them overseas.

Suzuki's is a newly established section within the insurance association. The Japanese insurance industry last year paid out 56 billion yen in insurance coverage for stolen automobiles. According to an association poll, 46.5 percent of the vehicles stolen were taken from outdoor parking lots with no security systems. Conventional locks, it also found, were ineffective deterrents to thieves -- more than 60 percent of the vehicles had been locked.

According to Suzuki, the most effective security system available today would be the "immobilizer." This is an electronic device that disables the engine if someone tries to start it up without the proper ignition key.

Japanese automakers have recently begun installing the lock in luxury cars and RVs, but as it is still too expensive for many consumers, Inomata advises that drivers at least take out insurance against theft, "otherwise, you'll have to keep paying the car loans even after it is stolen."

Pilfering plastic

About a year ago, Mary Fujita (not her real name) had just returned to Tokyo from an overseas trip when she received a call from her credit card company. Had she recently made 200,000 yen in purchases with her credit card?

She was quick to answer no. She had been out of town, and her credit card had been left at home. It soon become apparent that someone had swiped her credit card data.

"I have no idea where my card information was stolen or how. I never go to suspicious-looking izakaya (bars) or the like. I use my credit card only at trustworthy places, and I always keep an eye on my card while cashiers are handling it," says Fujita. "I'm so scared I seldom use my credit card now, though it makes life inconvenient."

Credit-card fraud has increased drastically in recent years. According to the Japan Consumer Credit Industry Association, it was responsible for 1.2 billion yen in losses in 1997, and ten times that -- 14 billion yen -- in 2000.

According to Kazuhiko Nishiuchi of the association, it's actually quite easy to steal credit-card data. He says many perpetrators use a device called a skimmer that can instantly record information from a card's magnetic strip. These devices are sometimes attached to stores' card readers so that every time cashiers swipe a card, its data is recorded by the skimmer. In some cases, criminal groups work in conjunction with cashiers -- often placing them in stores -- who steal card data using palm-size skimmers, he says.

It is almost impossible for card carriers to detect when their card number has been swiped, says Mitsuhiro Oshima of American Express. Credit card companies, therefore, monitor clients' shopping patterns for irregularities -- disproportionately high expenditures or purchases at unusual places, for instance -- and call both client and shop if they suspect fraud.

Still, Oshima recommends that card carriers keep their eyes open. "Keep all your receipts and carefully compare them with your bill from the credit card company," he says. "Report to the card company whenever you find suspicious charges. You will not be charged [for fraudulent purchases]."

Recently, some credit card companies have switched from magnetic strips to integrated circuit chips to fight cases of fraud. Full-scale transition in Japan is scheduled for 2003. "After that, it will be next to impossible to steal card data," says Nishiuchi of the consumer credit industry association.

But until the new system is in place, there are no decisive measures to prevent credit-card data theft.

Be prepared

It has been noted that the Japanese government has yet to develop a crisis-management mentality, that it is ill-prepared for natural disasters. Could the same criticism be leveled at its citizens in regard to personal safety?

Are you at risk? Just ask yourself these questions: Does your house have doors and windows? Do you drive a car? Do you use credit cards? It could very well happen to you . . . even in Japan.



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