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String of robberies in Japan apparently committed by social media hired help

This Jan. 20, 2023, photo shows a home in the Tokyo suburban city of Komae, where the body of Kinuyo Oshio was found. (Mainichi/Ayumu Iwasaki)

A spate of robberies across Japan suspected to be linked to a certain criminal group was apparently performed by people hired for "shady gigs" through social media.

    There also are suspicions that members of the group behind the robbery spree may be involved in the killing of 90-year-old Kinuyo Oshio, found dead in her Komae, Tokyo home on Jan. 19, the apparent victim of a murder-robbery.

    Authorities believe that the string of robberies was performed by people recruited via social media, after the ringleaders obtained information on residences with large amounts of cash. This tactic bears a striking resemblance to "specialized fraud," in which swindlers gain the trust of their targets over the phone or other remote means. One senior police official said, "It's possible that a specialized fraud group is behind the incidents as they want to get their hands on money quickly."

    A suspect in his 30s arrested in connection with the theft of about 30 million yen, or around $230,000, from a home in Tokyo's Nakano Ward in December 2022 was quoted as telling Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) investigators that he "did it after applying for a shady part-time gig." A total of seven individuals, four of whom had been arrested as of the morning of Jan. 24, carried out the robbery. They were reportedly hired online and by other methods.

    Police believe that thieves who stole around 35 million yen (about $270,000) from a home in the Tokyo suburban city of Inagi in October 2022 had also responded to an online offer to carry out the crime, according to an investigative source.

    Investigative sources have also revealed that those involved in these two incidents also took part in robberies in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, and the city of Hiroshima's Nishi Ward, both hundreds of kilometers southwest of the Japanese capital.

    Some of the accused in the Iwakuni case are now on trial. According to opening statements and other information, a 26-year-old defendant was told that the part-time work he applied for online was "a robbery job with a reward of 1 million yen," or about $7,700. He headed to the actual site as ordered, and was apparently shown a photo of the victim's home by another member, and told things like, "There are two safes containing 100 million yen (about $770,000)," and, "If we don't know the code for the combination lock, we'll threaten them (the owner) with a boxcutter."

    The names and other details of the ringleaders have not been uncovered.

    Recruiting people on the internet to carry out crimes is also used in specialized fraud. In most cases, the people who actually go to pick up or withdraw cash in this type of scam are offered the job on social media.

    Authorities believe that yakuza crime syndicates, as well as "quasi yakuza" -- loosely organized groups that repeatedly commit criminal acts and that are commonly known as "hangure" in Japan -- are involved in giving orders in these specialized fraud groups. However, the situation is difficult to grasp, and in many cases only the hired hands are arrested.

    Regarding the spate of robberies, a senior investigative official commented, "It is possible that crime syndicates, quasi yakuza, and other groups are involved in the background."

    There have also been cases that suggest the involvement of crime syndicates.

    Ibaraki Prefectural Police arrested three men in connection with a robbery in June 2022, where about 30 million yen, or around $230,000, in cash was taken from a home in the prefectural city of Koga. The force is working to verify that one of the suspects is affiliated with a crime syndicate designated by the local public safety commission. The MPD's organized crime section has also been investigating the incident in Tokyo's Nakano Ward, considering it highly likely that it was an organized job.

    An increasingly intensive crackdown on specialized fraud also seems to be behind the spate of robberies.

    According to the National Police Agency, the total amount of damages from specialized fraud has decreased for seven consecutive years after peaking in 2014 at around 56.55 billion yen (roughly $434 million). The figure stood at some 28.2 billion yen (roughly $217 million) for 2021, and 31.6 billion yen (about $243 million) in provisional figures for January to November 2022. Strengthened cooperation between police authorities and financial institutions have proven somewhat effective to prevent the scams.

    A senior police officer expressed concern, saying, "Groups may be causing violent incidents because they find specialized fraud too much of a hassle." Another senior officer said that there may be separate groups to carry out specialized fraud schemes and the robberies, but acting under the orders of the same ringleaders.

    Nobuo Komiya, a criminology professor at Rissho University, commented, "Even if groups continue to make phone calls for specialized fraud, only a handful of people fall victim to them. They must find it quicker and easier to go rob people once they obtain information about their assets."

    (Japanese original by Takuya Suzuki and Maki Kihara, Tokyo City News Department, Minori Nagaya, Mito Bureau, and Hidenobu Fukuhara, Yamaguchi Bureau)

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