A group of four Nigerian and Cameroon nationals have been arrested in Japan on suspicions of tricking Japanese women into transferring large sums of money. The culprits misused social media sites such as Facebook and posed as U.S. servicemen, using photos of unrelated men to romantically woo their victims.
The group is believed to be active in eastern Japan and have been traced to scamming at least three people out of 8.8 million Japanese yen ($73,000) between March and June last year. Investigators made a breakthrough after searching the group’s headquarters in Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo. The headquarters belonged to an automobile-affiliated company.
A local nonprofit organization M-STEP — set up three years ago to tackle the growing problem of courtship scams, often called “catfishing” — surveyed victims between May and December last year. They uncovered a staggering 481 cases of financial duping from 131 respondents nationwide. The largest loss a victim reported was 54 million yen ($500,000).
M-STEP Chairman Terue Shinkawa told NHK that in almost all cases the scammers pretend to be based overseas in war zones such as Syria and Afghanistan, which make it hard to verify their true circumstances and difficult to meet up in person.
Similarities between cases show a common tactic of sending online friend requests and grooming and emotionally manipulating victims. The victims claim they are smooth-talked and swept off their feet by flattery, declarations of love, and marriage proposals – all without meeting in person.
Some women described that in phone conversations they could detect mistakes in English and inconsistent accents but ignored the warning signs. After a few months the con artists build trust and extract personal information and finally come up with an excuse to ask for a loan. Typically they first request small amounts then continue to demand larger sums, faking a medical emergency, for example, or needing money to leave the U.S. military or for a plane ticket to come visit Japan.
A 59-year-old part-time worker from Fukuoka was sold an elaborate story and swindled of approximately $6,000 – supposedly for the imposter to take a private jet to come visit Japan. Meanwhile a single 43-year-old company employee says her scam started with a friend request from a man called “John.” After striking up a conversation he told her he was training for combat and posted photos and a video showing him holding a rifle to back up his claims. On day three he wrote he “couldn’t imagine kissing anyone else” and “God made you and I a match.”
By the 10th day John confessed his love and after two months he proposed marriage, before supposedly heading to the front-lines. Later she received a message from a stranger claiming John had been shot and was badly injured in a hospital in England. John resurfaced online and asked for money twice, claiming his condition had gotten worse, and promised to get married after he recovered. When she began pursuing his lies, John fell silent and the account was deleted.
Japanese women in their 40s and 50s — including married women, single moms, and divorcees — have been targets for fake romance or friendship by con artists. Men have not been spared, though.
A 46-year-old male office worker in Tokyo fell victim and was cheated of 2 million yen ($18,000) when he wired money to a person he believed was an American widower needing help transferring her inheritance to him.
M-STEP Chairman Shinkawa says he often offers counselling to victims who have nowhere to turn. He explains that very few people actually report the stolen money. Because the theft crosses national borders, the possibility of retrieving the money is slim. According to Shinkawa, many victims cry themselves to sleep.
Japanese authorities believe there’s a high chance the main masterminds are outside Japan and local henchman are operating within Japan, entrusted with opening bank accounts and the international money laundering side to the scam.
The FBI first raised the alarm on the rise of global romance fraud in 2015, tracing West Africa as the main base for perpetrators. Acting on this, Japanese police began strengthening surveillance for online fraud two years ago.