TOKYO (TR) – For “Mrs. A” (as she will be referred to in this story), a recent morning started off rather quietly. This housewife from Yamaguchi Prefecture had nothing substantial planned, aside from a little housework and some time behind her computer. But after one phone call, the day disintegrated into the worst of her life.
It is around noon, and the caller says he is a policeman. “First, relax, and listen carefully,” he cautions. “Your husband has been in an accident which is now under investigation. He fell asleep at the wheel of his car.”
“He’s with me now,” the policeman continues, “and he’s not injured, but he caused quite a bit of damage to another car, one owned by a Mr. Ishii of Hiroshima.”
The officer then hands the phone to her husband. Some random, slurred speech and a garbled “sorry” is all that he can muster. He’s a frantic mess.
In shock, she drops the receiver to her side.
Her husband can’t take of this matter himself given the emotional state he is in, or so says the policeman. So after pulling herself together, she jots down Mr. Ishii’s contact information and calls him, whereby the total cost of the repairs is conveyed.
From the repair shop, Mr. Ishii explains, “Having the insurance company take care of it is not a possibility given that I need the car fixed immediately for my work.”
Now panicked herself, Mrs. A rushes off on her bicycle to make a bank transfer totaling nearly 2 million yen to Mr. Ishii’s post office account.
But, in the end, it was all just a scam. The scenario was merely a choreographed ruse preformed by a group of fraudsters playing various roles over the phone.
This type of swindle is termed “ore ore” sagi (“It’s me” fraud), a crime that targets the elderly, and with Japan being a cash society in which debt holds great shame, it is a problem that likely won’t be going away soon.
“They were so realistic,” she recalls of the fraudsters’ acting talent. “The person playing my husband really seemed to be crying.”
Instilling panic is a necessity. Mrs. A was told by the policeman that a trip to court would likely be necessary for her husband. As well, he said that if her husband’s condition didn’t improve soon he’d have to go to the hospital.
“In thinking back,” Mrs. A says now, “I can now see that much of the incident was implausible, but at the time I was willing to believe anything.”
For her, all critical thinking was lost. When the “policeman” read off his phone number, he did so in a manner that ignored the standard location of hyphens in a nine-digit number. She realizes now that by moving the first hyphen to after the fourth digit, instead of the second, as is typical, he was able to slightly conceal that the number was a standard “06″ prefix, obviously that of an Osaka landline, and not, as he said, “my car’s wireless number.” Also questionable was his interest in money.
Tact is another matter. Mrs. A remembers the officer rounding off the total amount she had to deposit from 1,982,620 to 1,982,000 yen, with him even proclaiming over the phone, “I’m a nice guy, right?”
In 2003, such scams in Japan were highly profitable. Police statistics showed that over 2.3 billion yen was squeezed from roughly 4,000 unsuspecting victims.
Success has bred popularity. The early part of last year only saw a handful of such cases. But by year’s end, the police were recording over 1,000 incidents each month.
The names, phone numbers, and other details (in Mrs. A’s situation, even her apartment building name) are often obtained through corporate data leaks of customer information. Mrs. A thinks the perpetrators received her information through a convenience store membership club.
The biggest such incident in Japan occurred earlier this month when Softbank Corp.’s Yahoo! BB Internet provider had information on 4.52 million subscribers stolen. This came soon after 2 million customers of Sanyo Shinpan Finance Co., a consumer finance firm, had their private information leaked.
Thus far, loan shark organizations tied to yakuza crime syndicates have been fingered as many of the perpetrators. While typically targeting senior citizens living alone — though not the case with the 40-year old Mrs. A — these impersonators have ranged from sons asking mothers for money for car repairs to women seeking funds from lovers for an abortion.
True, too, Japan attaches great dishonor to debt. Though Mrs. A maintains that her willingness to pay was instigated entirely by a want to help her husband, she says, “A person who will pay the money is seen as honest, strong, and responsible.”
However, all was not lost in the end. On the way to the bank that day, she paused, thinking that what was happening had to be a dream; it was all so unreal. So she decided to call her husband, who informed her that no accident had taken place. Relieved, yet shaken and in tears, she retold the story to a real police officer at a nearby station.
Since she didn’t pay any money in the end, the police are not going to investigate the case further. Later the would-be swindlers called back wondering about the transaction, but once she told them she had called her husband’s office, the line was cut.
Mrs. A remains upbeat, even scoffing at friends and relatives who have made jokes about her falling for a trick typically intended for older people.
“It was a terrible day,” she says, “but at least I didn’t pay the money. So if everyone wants to have a laugh at my expense, that’s fine.”
Update: The National Police Agency reported that in 2010 the number of ore ore sagi cases increased by 44.5 percent from the year before to 4,418.
Note: This article originally appeared in February 2004 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.