A fraud ring based in the Philippines set up outposts in Japan to continue operations after the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to bring scam members into the Southeast Asian country, investigative sources said.
The group used at least eight bases in Tokyo, all private lodgings, and routinely relocated the members over a period of less than two months, apparently to stay under the radar of law enforcement, the sources said.
The fraudsters are suspected of swindling more than 6 billion yen ($43 million) from victims in Japan through phony telephone calls. More than 70 individuals have been arrested in connection with the group.
Yuki Watanabe, 39, who is believed to be the top leader, was arrested on suspicion of theft with his three close aides in February after they were deported from the Philippines.
Investigators learned details of the group’s bases in Tokyo by questioning suspects and analyzing confiscated materials.
In November 2019, authorities in the Philippines rounded up 36 suspected scammers, including those tasked with making phone calls, at an abandoned hotel in Manila, one of the group’s bases in the country.
Around March 2020, the spread of the novel coronavirus led to travel restrictions, and the group found it difficult to bring callers from Japan to the Philippines.
The ring leaders decided to open bases in Japan to work around the travel problems and continue the scams, the sources said.
In early May 2020 at the latest, members resumed making phone calls from a base in Tokyo, and moved to another location about a week later, the sources said.
They relocated to two different sites in the capital in about two weeks, and then transferred to three other places in about three weeks, the sources said.
About a week later, one of the three bases was moved to a location in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward.
At the Shinjuku base, the Metropolitan Police Department arrested eight individuals, including callers, on suspicion of fraud on June 24, 2020.
Investigators suspect the group replaced members or added callers when it moved members from one location to another.
The eight bases were all private lodgings known as “minpaku,” which require less strict identity confirmation procedures compared with hotels and rental houses and apartments. Minpuku, for example, can be used without meeting anyone in charge of renting the properties.
The number of people arrested in connection with the group is still increasing.
On May 24, the MPD announced four individuals were arrested on suspicion of theft after they were transferred from the Philippines earlier in the day.
Shohei Sato, 32, is suspected of serving as a supervisor of callers in a fraud case in June 2019, according to police.
The other three, all in their 20s, are suspected of working as callers in a fraud case in November the same year.
A 59-year-old man, who is believed to have been a caller, is still being detained in the Philippines, police sources said.