As if they haven't suffered enough, thousands of victims of last year's earthquake and tsunami disaster are being preyed upon by tricksters out to profit from their misfortune.
The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan (NCAC) said it had received some 33,500 complaints and grievances about apparent fraudulent sales practices since the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake.
Typically, bogus deals are offered to residents in stricken areas of northeastern Japan as well as people assisting in rebuilding efforts.
The fraudsters often stress that only victims of the disaster are eligible for special, and supposedly lucrative, deals. Invariably, the pitches are tilted at helping other disaster victims.
Some scams are quite elaborate, suggesting that a number of con artists are working together.
"Swindlers have been talking to people about making special investments. This and some of the theatrical approaches being taken are new tricks," said an NCAC representative. "People should consult with their friends, the police and NCAC offices before handing over any money."
According to police investigators, con artists often target people listed in telephone directories for municipalities ravaged by tsunami. This is because chances are good that they live in temporary housing, meaning that they are more vulnerable.
One victim, a 68-year-old unemployed woman who lives in temporary housing in the northern city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture, said she received a phone call from a man who identified himself as an investment adviser.
He offered to sell 20 corporate bonds, each costing 200,000 yen ($2,500), as part of a "special campaign to assist disaster victims."
The caller said a factory builder in Tokyo planned to construct a plant in Ishinomaki to dispose of quake and tsunami debris to return a percentage of the sales to victims after it went into operation.
"This is your chance to buy its corporate bonds at an affordable price because the company has yet to go public with its plan," the woman quoted the man as saying. "We are only notifying victims of the disaster about this special offer."
The following day, another man purporting to be working for a securities brokerage called to ask if she knew anybody who invested in the corporate bonds. He said he is willing to purchase them at twice the original sum.
Before long, the man who pretended to be an investment adviser called her again. The woman decided to purchase 20 corporate bonds.
The woman said she was desperate for money to rebuild her home, which was extensively damaged in the disaster.
She lost her car and part-time job after the disaster, and was getting by only on her national pension.
She was instructed to make four deposits of 1 million yen each a day at a bank ATM.
The woman grew suspicious as she had to transfer the money to a different recipient each time.
After the third payment, she consulted with an official at a bank, who said the deal must be fraudulent.
Bank officials discovered that although the company in Tokyo exists, it has no plan to build a factory in Ishinomaki and does not issue corporate bonds.
With the help of a lawyer, the woman managed to get her money back.
"I was partly to blame," she said. "I really wasn't thinking properly because I was still in shock from the disaster. But taking advantage of disaster victims is really appalling."
In Miyagi Prefecture, also in northern Japan, a 37-year-old man who runs an orthopedic clinic ended up paying about 700,000 yen over three months after he was approached by advertising companies to join an ad campaign to help disaster victims.
The man said a company with which he was not familiar called him one day with a proposal to place an ad in a magazine as part of the campaign.
He agreed to the proposal, and was charged 25,000 yen per ad. He said he thought he was helping with the task of rebuilding.
But he was baffled when he received a contract document charging him 75,000 yen.
The man contacted the company and was told that his ad would be published each time the magazine came out, which was three times a month.
The man protested that he had not been informed about that beforehand. The company threatened to take legal action to recoup its loss.
Scared, the man grudgingly paid the money.
He also paid the sum he was asked when two other ad companies approached with similar proposals.
Many fraudulent sales practices in Fukushima Prefecture, home to the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, involve products related to radiation.
According the Fukushima prefectural branch of the NCAC, a woman in her 30s complained that a company did not deliver a dosimeter she ordered on the Internet for about 40,000 yen.
She said she was unable to contact the company.
In response to an e-mail, a man in his 60s paid 4,000 yen to buy zeolite, which the sender claimed would protect him from internal radiation exposure if he placed it on the floor of his home.
But it was never delivered to him.
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