Learn from fraudsters to avoid scams

JAPAN - With losses from various forms of fraud, including remittance fraud, expected to top the previous record of ¥40 billion (S$486 million) this year, police are trying to help people learn from "the enemy" by sharing some common techniques used by con artists.

The Metropolitan Police Department seized papers in late September with the instructions: "Don't interrupt while the other person is talking! First, carefully listen to what the target says."

The papers were found in a condominium in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, suspected to be a base for a fraud group.

Six men in their 20s and 30s were arrested on suspicion they posed as officials of a local government office who told their victims they were eligible for refunds of medical expenses and that they should go to an ATM. They reportedly talked the victims through a "refund procedure" over the phone and had them transmit money to designated accounts.

It can be quite difficult to listen to another person without interrupting him or her. People have a tendency to interject to summarize long explanations, saying such phrases as, "So, what you want to say is..."

"The instructions were placed on the desks so people making the calls could easily read them," a senior MPD official said.

"People tend to think others who carefully listen to what they say without any bias are 'good people who understand' them well," said Hiroaki Enomoto, head of the MP Ningen Kagaku Kenkyujo, which has many authors who write psychology-related books.

"People who are listened to unconditionally feel the other party 'understands them.' Once trust has been established, people will do what they're told, even if it seems a bit contradictory," Enomoto said.

'Shake them up'

Making the target anxious or confused is a classic technique. In early October, an 86-year-old resident in Katsushika Ward, Tokyo, received a call from a man pretending to be his grandson.

"I lost my bag that had a check in it," said the person on the other end, who then fired off a spate of instructions: "Lend me ¥3 million that I need for today's deal," and, "I'll send a coworker to come and get it."

The elderly man believed the story, and was only prevented from withdrawing the cash by an observant bank employee.

One man in his 20s tried to con an elderly woman out of ¥1.8 million, by saying he was her son and needed money to pay off a girlfriend he had gotten pregnant.

He told investigators giving repeated instructions while the target is confused is a basic method.

Another group of con artists would not give their targets time to think. Instead of asking, "Can you go to a bank?" they would phrase it as an order: "Quickly go to the bank and make a withdrawal."

According to Nobuo Komiya, a professor of criminology at Rissho University, people's ability to make decisions declines when they become flustered.

"When dealing with money matters over the phone, it is important to maintain control, such as deciding when and where to hand over the money by yourself, even when dealing with family," he said.

Signature phrase

The MPD recently exposed a group that, from February to August, swindled elderly people by pretending to help them recover money they had lost in an investment scam.

One man who worked the phones for the group told police the key phrase to use with elderly people was, "I'll make things work out somehow."

When the group's members listened to what the victims had experienced, making them recall their angst and sadness of the time, and then offered "words of help," they found a lot of people would cling to the offer.

"Offenders read books on psychology and study the techniques of salesmen," the MPD senior official said. "If you know the conversational techniques used in scams, you lower the possibility of being caught in one."

Fooled, even in practice

At the end of October, the MPD started conducting training workshops in which company employees, pretending to be criminals in a role play, talked with their real parents over the phone.

By getting both parents and their children to participate, the MPD hopes to raise both sides' awareness of such scams.

"I lost money on the stock market and I need ¥3 million," Hiroyasu Kawabe, a 42-year-old employee of an Internet-related company in Shinjuku Ward, told his 66-year-old mother in Gunma Prefecture.

They had discussed the workshop beforehand, but when Kawabe's mother heard him say, "I used company money to cover it up. I'll be fired if I get caught," she thought, "I have to go to the bank to make a withdrawal."

Even though she knew it was a lie, her heart still wavered, she later said.

Scenarios used in the training are based on actual cases. After talking for about five minutes, if the parent calls the child to confirm, the role-play training is considered a success.

The MPD conducted about 250 such workshops this year.

"We want people to learn that they should first call their child to confirm if they get a suspicious call," an officer in charge of the programme said.