A long-running story in Japan this year has been the so-called “It’s me” scam. It’s become such a fixture of the news, in fact, that its Wikipedia entry is already posted; the latest victim surfaced last week.
It works like this:
A large number of people, especially the elderly, have fallen victim to the so-called “It’s me, send money” scam in which swindlers posing as the victims’ children or grandchildren call and ask them to send money.
Such swindlers typically call victims posing as their children saying, “It’s me.” They then lie that they had been abducted or caused a traffic accident, and ask the victims to remit money into designated accounts as ransom or compensation.
The victims believe that they are actually talking to their children or grandchildren and remit the money. After contacting their children or grandchildren, they realize they had been tricked. By the time they contact the financial institutions or police, the money has been withdrawn from the account.
The more sophisticated criminals will play recordings of sirens in the background to simulate an accident scene. If they know the cell number of the person they’re impersonating, they’ll repeat dial the number until the phone goes dead; that way they can explain to the victim that they’ll be out of contact until the money is remitted. In one of the more recent cases, a man was swindled out of the equivalent of over US $400,000. Yes, I checked the number of zeros.
To American (and many other foreign) observers, this whole thing is incomprehensible. And by this point in time, the scam has been so incessantly publicized that it’s hard to believe people are still being taken in by it. While it’s true that criminals have changed their MO somewhat–often impersonating lawyers, police officers, or bank employees “on behalf” of close relatives–it boggles the mind that anyone is still remitting money to a strange bank account at the request of someone whose identity has not been confirmed.
The initial mistakes were, however, understandable. I suspect that many of the victims were hard-of-hearing and didn’t talk to their children and grandchildren all that frequently, and strangeness of voice and idiolect could have been put down to agitation over the alleged emergency.
Additionally, it just isn’t hard to believe in today’s Japan that a relative has taken out a loan and is about to get into big trouble for being unable to pay it back, which is the story frequently used. Many of us Americans can still imagine our parents’ or grandparents’ demanding to know, “Just how did you get yourself into this jam in the first place? And why on earth didn’t you tell me sooner?” Japan still teaches youngsters to depend on their elders a lot more than most Western countries do, though; in turn, it encourages those elders to see themselves as stewards of the family honor. Both of these are fine things that it would be nice to see America relearn. But Japan can take them to an extreme that can all but exclude personal responsibility, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they were part of the reason that people have been squelching their native caution–in the most recent case, even after a helpful taxi driver got the police to warn the victim before she made the deposit–and forking over the money.