Fraud on the Line: Japan’s Persistent Telephone Scams


“Telephone scams,” in which criminals defraud their marks over the phone, show no sign of abating in Japan. Authorities have fought back against these incidents through public awareness campaigns, but have been matched by crafty perpetrators who quickly adopt new techniques to dupe their victims. Nishida Kimiaki analyzes the psychological factors at play on the victims’ side and looks at what is behind the persistent problem.

Victims Reluctant to Come Forward

There seems to be no end to in sight to Japan’s plague of telephone scams. According to the National Police Agency, criminals who con people out of money by calling in the guise of family members, bank employees, and other trusted figures have resulted in damages of around ¥50 billion annually for more than a decade.

Many experts argue, though, that actual losses from such crimes are much higher than these numbers, which only represent reported cases. Studies show that victims are often reluctant to go to the police or even tell close relatives because they feel powerless to get their money back or ashamed at having been so easily deceived. There is also a strong psychological tendency among those targeted to discount personal responsibility by dismissing the event as an isolated incident, as well as an urge to quickly put the event in the past.

This reticence among victims is by no means the sole reason for the crime’s persistence, but it may explain to some extent why the authorities have struggled to find a viable approach for reducing the scale of bank transfer scams. To truly get to the bottom of why these incidents remain so common, though, requires moving beyond the psychological process preventing people from going to the police to consider their awareness of criminal methods, personalities, and specific conditions that keep them from realizing that they are being targeted.

Pundits chalk the tenacity of the swindles up to what they see as the overly trusting nature of the Japanese. But this fails to consider that from a crook’s perspective, the scams are an easy, low-risk way to dupe people out of money. The abundance of such low-hanging fruit has more than any other factor driven the rise in both criminal groups running cons and the techniques they practice.

Wanting to Believe

The cons begin with a telephone call, most often to a parent or grandparent, and follow a common storyline. A younger relative has had an accident, or is caught up in an unsavory situation at work, and needs money immediately, generally a few million yen. The archetype is the ore ore sagi—literally, the “it’s me, it’s me scam”—in which the perpetrator uses the male personal pronoun ore (me) to fool an unwary victim into thinking a son or grandson is on the other end of the line. Another common variety involves fake brokerages offering high returns on stocks and bonds and targeting older, less financially savvy citizens.

In either approach, success for the criminal hinges on quickly winning the confidence of the victim. Once the bait is taken, criminals offer up an urgent reason for needing money. Some common scenarios employed include having forgotten a bag containing a bank check for an important client on the train, injuring someone in a traffic accident, being stuck as a guarantor for a friend who just skipped out on a loan, and misappropriating company funds. To add an extra level of credibility to their shams, perpetrators often gather personal information like names and places of employment ahead of time. They also inject a sense of urgency with warnings of bringing shame on superiors or by raising the specter of being fired or arrested.

Faced with the wretched pleas of a person they believe to be their son, victims are completely disarmed. They scramble to gather the funds necessary to save their child from impending ruin.

The standard procedure in ore ore sagi is to ask the victim to send money via bank transfer, but as authorities and financial institutions have clamped down on such methods, criminal groups have turned to new and inventive approaches. One of these is for the so-called son to set a time to collect the funds in person. The prospect of a face-to-face meeting lends an air of legitimacy, but after withdrawing the money the victim is asked to wait. The bogus son then says he is too busy to come in person and sends a friend or other confidant in his stead. Having no reason to suspect the child would lie, the parent eagerly hands over the cash.

Cultural Complicity

Human nature is one of the main factors working to the advantage of those looking to deceive. In what is known as normalcy bias, a psychological phenomenon where people underestimate the possibility of and the potential effects from a negative situation, victims misjudge the dangers of telephone fraud and overvalue their ability to recognize a scam. This means that when suspicious phone calls come, people are already lulled by a false sense of security and do not take precautionary steps or even question whether they are being targeted.

In the case of ore ore sagi, normalcy bias enables villains with just a few words to convince victims that the person on the phone is a son. People do not realize the difficulty of accurately identifying voices over the telephone, and in the heat of the moment, the flustered parents take the alarming story at face value, often readily giving up information that aids the ploy. Instead of taking simple precautions like hanging up and calling their real child back, they drop their guard completely, falling headlong into the crook’s net out of the simple desire to help their son out of a fix.

Compounding the problem is the growing isolation of families. In Japan, it is increasingly common for adult offspring, for work or school, to live in different cities and even prefectures than those where they were raised. Parents assume that their children, particularly their sons, are too busy with their own lives to maintain regular contact. When they hear what sounds like a familiar voice on the other end of the line, then, it is easy to see why a mother or father may be quick to believe their baby boy—it is almost never a daughter—is calling at long last.

Time for a New Course

There are two aspects of Japanese culture at work in these scams. The first is familialism, or the belief that the needs of the family take precedence over those of its individual members. Parents in Japan have a strong tendency to feel responsible for the actions of their children long after the offspring reach adulthood. In this milieu, it is both natural and expected that mothers or fathers worth their salt would fly to the rescue of an errant son.

The second is a deeply ingrained belief that society will take extenuating circumstances into consideration before passing judgement on a person’s misdeeds. Indeed, it is this belief that lends an extra veneer of believability to the tales these criminals spin for the victims. Even the most dedicated parents understand that in the end it is the son who must pay the penalty for his actions, whether through an elaborate apology, financial reparations, or incarceration. But mothers and fathers put their faith in the forgiving nature of society, trusting that even in the direst circumstances their son can lighten the severity of his punishment or even have it expunged by admitting his mistake and earnestly asking for mercy. Such desperate thinking, however, unwittingly helps criminals by preventing victims from first considering the integrity of the story.

Today the situation has reached a critical point where the government needs to do more than merely raise awareness of telephone scams. The time has come to stop focusing on why people continue to fall for these schemes and for local and national authorities to take the lead in rolling out concrete measures to address them, in part by changing the basic way people communicate over the telephone. One such approach would be to promote videophone systems so that it becomes second nature for people to expect to see the person they are talking to, thus reducing the effectiveness of the nefarious techniques used in ore ore sagi.

In the meantime, though, criminal groups continue to bilk billions of yen from innocent victims, and society hopes desperately for new weapons to wield in the fight against telephone scams.

(Originally published in Japanese on June 16, 2017. Banner photo © Aflo.)

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