Photo/Illutration Jaspanese e-cigarettes are said to be popular in China. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A Chinese student whose computer contained millions of stolen IDs and passwords appears to have been a key player in a fraud ring connected to another group that has been smuggling Japanese e-cigarettes to China.

Japanese police on May 1 rearrested Hu Aobo, 30, on suspicion of illegally accessing computer accounts of individuals whose IDs and passwords were stolen.

Hu’s computer held the IDs and passwords of several million users, as well about 100 million email addresses, sources in the joint police investigation said.

One investigator said the amount of data found on the computer was unprecedented.

The computer also contained a number of fake internet sites used in phishing scams to steal personal information.

The sites purported to be online shopping sites and those of financial institutions. Police also seized a manual that showed how to create such fake websites.

Hu and his accomplices were arrested in February in connection with a scam in which huge amounts of e-cigarettes were purchased in Japan through the stolen accounts of users of the Merpay e-payment service.

Hu is believed to be one of the “engineers” of the fraud ring who was in charge of hacking and other computer work.

Since June 2022, Japanese police investigating the e-cigarette scam have arrested 13 Chinese nationals who played different roles in the group.

Some issued orders for the scheme while others were assigned to buy the e-cigarettes, the sources said.

Three have admitted to the charges and were found guilty by the Yokohama District Court.

According to testimony given in court, Chinese were recruited into the group through social media or word-of-mouth.

Video images of stolen e-payment codes were used at convenience stores to purchase the e-cigarettes. Some suspects would visit as many as 10 convenience stores in one night and obtain about 600,000 yen ($4,400) worth of e-cigarettes.

The “buyers” received between 20,000 and 30,000 yen for a day’s work.

The e-cigarettes were collected and sold to Chinese trading firms for resale in China, where Japanese e-cigarettes are popular.

Sources said police were looking into the distribution channel.

Phishing scams targeting smartphones of older users have been rising in recent years.

According to the Council on Anti-Phishing Japan, 969,000 phishing emails were reported in 2022, an increase of 48.5 times over 2018.

“It is difficult for ordinary people to detect a fake site,” one official said. “They should just ignore such emails and not click the URL address included in the email.”

(This article was written by Junji Murakami and Ikuko Abe.)