Criminals are exploiting the chaos caused by Japan's deadliest earthquake in a decade by stealing and defrauding vulnerable residents, particularly the elderly, police warned yesterday.
Niigata, a rice-growing province 200km northwest of Tokyo, was hit on Oct. 23 by a tremor of 6.8 on the Richter scale followed by hundreds of aftershocks, killing 39 people including victims of stress.
The quake has signalled an opportunity for criminals who have shifted to Niigata in the hope of making a quick profit in the region where some 17,000 people are still living in shelters, police said.
"We are urging residents to be on the alert as some people are trying to take advantage of the disaster," a Niigata police spokesman said.
Police announced that a 100-strong patrol squad, named Team Snow Camellia after the prefecture's flower, has been assigned to prevent crime related to quake victims.
The squad is part of 2,000 police personnel mobilized in Niigata to handle activities related to the quake including traffic control and reconstruction work.
Police said they have received 24 formal reports of crime since the first tremor struck, including thefts at shelters and deserted homes and telephone scams designed to trick the elderly out of their savings by pretending to be a relative or an official. In the Niigata town of Yamato, a man in his 50s was defrauded of three million yen (US$28,300) by a telephone swindler last month.
The call began with a woman saying, "Dad, I ran over some people. What should I do?" Another man immediately came on the line identifying himself as part of Japan's de facto army, the Ground Self-Defense Force.
"Your daughter injured two high school students, both of them in critical condition. Hospitals are full due to the quake and traffic is paralyzed," the man said, according to police.
The swindler went on to say he would send a helicopter to airlift the injured students thanks to the intervention by a secretary of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
"Since this case cannot be covered by medical insurance, could you remit money to the bank account I give you now," the swindler said.
In another case, police on Monday found that a 27-year-old criminal suspect had sneaked into a shelter in Ojiya city by pretending to be a volunteer.