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Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009
Bank transfer fraudsters have that grift of gab
By ALEX MARTIN
Subway posters, newspaper ads, TV commercials and automatic teller machines nationwide bear warnings against "furikome sagi" — remittance fraud — a scourge that bilks the vulnerable out of billions of yen every year.
Con artists usually target their victims via cell phones, duping them into going to nearby ATMs or post offices to transfer funds into accounts that are quickly terminated.
Last year alone, the National Police Agency said victims were swindled out of ¥2.75 billion via remittance frauds, closing in on the record high ¥2.83 billion marked in 2004 and raising concerns about whether this widespread menace can be stopped. Police recorded 20,481 cases of "furikome" fraud in 2008, up from 17,930 in 2007.
Following are basic questions and answers regarding remittance frauds:
What constitutes remittance fraud?
An easy shorthand would sum up the crime as one of "Ore, ore" ("It's me, it's me"), in which a stranger uses a throwaway cell phone to call a vulnerable victim, usually a senior citizen, and speak in familiar terms like an offspring or other person acquainted with the target. The caller usually claims to be in quick need of money to get out of a jam.
The caller advises the victim to transfer funds into a specific account and then disappears with the money.
The various troubles callers allude to include needing quick cash to settle a traffic accident or repay a debt, or to avoid being blackmailed.
The amount swindled in this scam averages ¥2.3 million. Most victims are women over age 60.
That's a demographic also heavily targeted in another type of remittance fraud, the refund fraud, in which swindlers posing as tax officials or Social Insurance Agency workers ask a victim for a deposit in return for a tax or insurance refund.
Of 20,481 recognized cases of "furikome sagi" last year, "Ore, ore" and refund frauds accounted for 60 percent. In monetary terms, they accounted for 73 percent of the total amount swindled.
Police are now warning people to be on alert for attempted remittance frauds related to the ¥2 trillion cash handout the government plans to introduce this spring.
Cases have already been reported of fraudsters posing as city officials directing people to transfer money in return for the cash handout.
Why are some marks easily duped?
Taizo Yasuda, an NPA expert on the issue, said that despite extensive campaigns to get people to watch out for remittance frauds, elderly people are still highly susceptible.
"The fact is, many older citizens live isolated from their families and don't get a chance to talk to their children or grandchildren as often as they would like," Yasuda said, explaining how such conditions enhance the effect of a phone call from someone who claims to be a close relative.
"There have also been many cases reported where victims were suffering dementia, making them even more prone to such crimes," he said.
Another factor that lends to such crimes may be the widespread availability of ATMs.
"There are ATMs everywhere, making it so much easier for criminals to steer victims to the closest one," he said.
What are some common ploys?
A popular technique is to ask the victim, upon initial contact, to register the phone number that appears on the victim's cell phone screen as the new number of whoever the impostor claims to be. This substantially reduces the victim's suspicion when they are contacted a second time. "They're basically goners" at this point, Yasuda said.
Calling victims just before banks close and pressuring them to hurry over to the nearest bank is another frequently used tactic.
The most effective method, however, is when multiple members of a fraud ring act out various roles, for example, a son, lawyer, police officer or victim of an accident, to trick even the most vigilant into buying the scam.
Who commits these crimes?
Instead of individuals, Yasuda of the NPA said fraud rings account for a majority of remittance frauds. He said the groups, whose members range in age from their late teens to early 30s, operate in a highly systematic fashion to avoid leaving a trail.
Cell phones are bought and registered under false identities. Bank accounts are constantly shifted to avoid seizure and the groups are adept at assuming various roles. Yasuda said in some cases, police have found crime manuals believed to have been used to train newcomers to fraud rings.
Yasuda said he once handled a case in which two brothers each operated a fraud ring consisting of 15 to 20 members and swindled a combined ¥100 million in one year.
"The brothers took about 70 percent of the total profit and divided the rest with the gang," Yasuda said.
The relative ease with which such crimes are carried out — anybody with a cell phone and a bank account could try it — was attracting many people interested in quick and easy cash, he added.
What are the police doing?
They have launched various campaigns in the past to curb remittance frauds. They have asked cell phone services to reinforce customer ID checks, financial institutions to warn customers of "furikome" frauds and have established a countermeasures office at NPA headquarters.
In December, the Chiba Prefectural Police and Chiba Bank installed devices at the bank's ATMs that cut off cell phone reception on their premises to disconnect swindlers giving remittance directions.
In January, the Kanagawa Prefectural Police asked retired officers to pretend to be duped when contacted by fraudsters to set up sting operations.
Such measures have proved effective to a certain extent but are still far from dealing a significant blow.
Yasuda emphasized, however, that these frauds not only hit victims financially but also psychologically, in many cases triggering a breakdown in families and occasionally leading to suicides.
"It's a coldblooded, vicious crime," he said.