Photo/IllutrationBuddhist priest Eiichi Shinohara counsels a woman, foreground, who was cheated out of more than 20 million yen. (Kentaro Isomura)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Many people taken in by money wiring scams in Japan become suicidal because they blame themselves for being fooled by the swindlers.

Buddhist priest Eiichi Shinohara counsels victims of fraud where con artists typically target the elderly, pretending to be their family members or moneylenders.

On a recent day in mid-November, a woman in her 80s, who said she had been cheated out of more than 20 million yen ($182,000), was apologizing repeatedly before the 74-year-old priest, in a house in the Tokai district.

“I beg you, please stop blaming yourself,” Shinohara told her.

“Say what you may, my sons and siblings are only speaking ill of me. It's my fault that ...” the woman retorted.

“It’s not your fault, I’m saying.”

“Well, I don’t know ...”

BLAMED FOR BEING ‘GREEDY’

The woman said she got a phone call in 2014 from a man who introduced himself as a bank employee.

“You won a foreign lottery worth 300 million yen!” she quoted him as saying.

She thought the money could help save a cash-strapped company operated by a family member. No suspicions arose in her mind when the man demanded a “10-percent commission.”

The woman became depressed after her sons blamed her for being “greedy.”

She learned in 2017 that Shinohara was receiving counseling requests around the clock from people contemplating killing themselves.

She phoned him and asked if he knew of any painless way to die.

Since then, Shinohara has been offering her support. He remains concerned about her as her mental state remains unstable.

He divides his time between acting as chief priest at a Buddhist temple in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, and his counseling activities, which have been covered in newspapers and TV programs.

About seven years ago, he began receiving counseling requests from people contemplating suicide after falling victim to money transfer frauds. He currently receives requests to help with several serious cases a year.

One man the priest counseled said he came up with the cash after he was fooled into thinking that his grandson had gambled away his company’s money.

One woman said she was convinced that a shop run by her daughter and son-in-law was going bankrupt.

Another man said he wanted to help a close friend, whom the caller said stiffed him on a bill.

Fraud victims are often harshly reproached by their family members, who say things like, “What a dupe you are!”

In one case, an individual who was cheated out of cash committed suicide, and a family member who had berated them for getting scammed was so overwhelmed by grief they became suicidal as well.

“The victims ended up being cheated because they are so kindhearted,” Shinohara said. “I don’t want their family members to put the blame on them.”

The isolation many elderly people experience puts them at risk of falling prey to scam artists, the priest said.

“They are always feeling lonely, as if they had been ‘dumped’ by their family members and by society,” he said. “That's why they react to fraudulent phone calls, glad that they could finally be of use to somebody. That’s about their call for esteem, an outcry of their souls. Just warning people against scams will never eradicate similar cases.”

TRANSFER FRAUDS ON RISE

A Tokyo woman in her 70s was cheated out of about 1.4 million yen in a money wiring scam in January last year. She was found dead about two weeks after she filed a damage report with police. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Her suicide note indicated her death was connected to being depressed over a money transfer fraud.

Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Crime Prevention Task Force officials said another woman in her 70s died suddenly about a week after she was cheated out of 4 million yen in cash.

“Mental stress from the suffering may have been a factor in her death,” a task force official said.

The broadly defined category of “money wiring scams” includes family emergency scams, fake billing scams, advance-fee loan scams and fake refund scams. National Police Agency figures show the annual number of money transfer scams in Japan grew for six consecutive years through 2017.

There were 15,000 similar scams during the first 11 months of last year, with a total loss of 31 billion yen. Those aged 65 or older accounted for 80 percent of the scam victims.