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Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2002

THE ZEIT GIST

Caveats to help avoid the conmen


Not long ago, while I was out posting a letter, a salesman phoned and told my wife that we had been tabbed to receive a new water filter for our kitchen faucet, absolutely free of charge.

"He's coming over right away to install it. What do you think?" she asked. "It's got to be a scam," I told her.

My wife's Japanese is good enough to pass for a native. Fortunately she gave the salesman a foreign sounding name (mine) and that put him on his guard. A short while later, he phoned back. When I answered, it confirmed he was dealing with a gaikokujin. The offer was promptly rescinded.

We found out later from a TV show that the "free" water filter was probably part of a well-know scam that has ripped off hundreds of unwary consumers.

My wife had previously been tripped up by another type of scam, which appeals to the human instinct to jump aboard the bandwagon. That time, a polite man in an uniform appeared at our door carrying a clipboard. On it was an official-looking sheet with our neighbors' names, and a check mark penciled in beside each.

His delivery was so convincing, we wound up paying about three times the going rate for a fire extinguisher.

To justify its higher price, however, it had a wonderful feature: a built-in voice synthesizer that instructed you how to use it. (Mechanical voice: "Point the nozzle toward the source of the fire. Depress the lever. Hold until the flames subside.") Superb.

Not all problems involve tricky salesmen. Recently I've read about quite a few problems related to "reform" businesses, which perform home renovations and repairs. Some companies, it seems, issue very low estimates to land the job, and then tack on additional charges.

I'm not sure if the con artists tend to avoid foreigners or not. Aside from the intricacies of the language barrier, which makes it harder to convey exaggerated product claims, most of us don't have a hanko (personal seal), needed to make the sales contract official. But some of these crooks may see the opportunity to bilk a foreigner as a challenge.

To deal with unethical businesses, the Tokyo Metropolitan government operates a consumer counseling center (call: 03-3235-1155), with sub-branches in each of the 23 wards. A flyer circulated by the center says claims have been increasing rapidly: the center fielded 102,755 complaints during 2001, up from 87,584 three years earlier.

Among the troublemakers noted in the flyer were aesthetic beauty treatment centers and foreign language schools; so called "catch-sales" for products or services pushed by touts and hustlers on the street; contracts concluded via the Internet; and e-mail spammers. In particular, e-shopping has become a growing source of disputes. Compared with 758 claims in 1998, the figure had risen to about 5,700 by 2001.

The center has adopted a three-stage approach for dealing with such problems: The first is to work to achieve a quick resolution. Secondly, they employ more forceful legal action against professional swindlers. Lastly, they are promoting tougher measures, particularly against products or services judged to be dangerous to life or limb.

To disseminate information and warn consumers, an Internet Web site has been posted for this purpose( www. shouhiseikatu. metro. tokyo. jp ).

No privacy here

Not long after reaching the age of 65, a foreign friend received a call from a company offering to sell her a grave site. "Why me?" she told the caller sarcastically and slammed the phone down. "How did they get my name?" she wondered.

The answer is not easy to determine, but to state that personal privacy is not zealously protected here may be something of an understatement. The laws have been overly lenient toward people caught leaking personal data such as resident registration.

If your name, address, birthdate, blood type, etc. is listed as a member of the local school PTA, for example, it's easily accessible.

Also, the government has been less than attentive regarding consumer protection. The extent of this problem was only highlighted in the mid-1980s, when swindles like Toyota Shoji's notorious "goldshares" scam, in which dozens of elderly were cheated out of their life savings, made banner headlines.

How is it that so many scams manage to flourish? The really clever ones keep their scams relatively small, aware that if the loss is not too great, victims will succumb to naki ne-iri ("cry themselves to sleep," i.e. absorb the loss) rather than seek damages.

Now, around the Schreiber household, nothing of any substance gets purchased without discussing it first. And when in doubt, let me remind readers of a famous old Japanese saying that goes: Tada yori takai mono wa nai ("there's nothing more costly than a freebie").



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