Social Media And Crime: Criminal Intent Lurking behind Flattering Smartphone Messages

An increasing number of people are falling victim to crimes committed by strangers they get acquainted with through their smartphones and are then enticed into meeting. People should be especially wary when they receive requests for money or sexual favors.

The National Police Agency has announced there were 1,575 cases last year of so-called romance fraud, in which victims are tricked into having romantic feelings over social media so the perpetrator can swindle them out of cash. The amount of money involved amounted to ¥17.7 billion in total.

Perpetrators use dating apps for people seeking marriage or social media to contact potential victims, pretending to be foreigners or Japanese living abroad. In many cases, victims are made to send money to the offenders after repeated exchanges of messages suggesting marriage, saying such things as: “I need money so I can live with you.”

Victims grow to trust perpetrators and are unlikely to realize they are being deceived. Even if they become suspicious, they reportedly find it difficult to consult the matter with their family because romantic feelings are involved.

This is an unscrupulous technique which takes advantage of the victims’ feelings of both love and shame. The cases that have come to light must be just the tip of the iceberg.

There also have been scams in which perpetrators claimed to be investors and enticed victims into transferring money by telling them on social media that they can invest in assets with a high probability of returns. Last year, there were 2,271 cases of such “social media investment scams” with damage totaling ¥27.8 billion.

These cases often involve middle aged and elderly people being fooled into losing cash repeatedly over a long period of time. The average amount of money defrauded per case was ¥12 million. The combined value of damage from both romance fraud and investment scam cases exceeded the ¥44.1 billion in damage from bank transfer scams and other special frauds.

The use of social media through which people can connect with each other via smartphones grew rapidly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as people were forced to refrain from going out. This is now an era in which 20% of married men and women got to know each other through dating apps. Members of society need to avoid being taken advantage of by unscrupulous people who approach them while hiding their identities.

If flattering words and beneficial offers are suddenly sent from strangers, it is dangerous to even reply to such messages. Even if one comes to like the sender, the recipient should suspect fraud and consult with the police as soon as the sender asks for money.

International fraud groups are thought to be involved in these cases. It is therefore essential for the police to deepen cooperation with foreign investigative agencies.

In some cases, bank employees noticed the potential victims’ unnatural behavior when they came to send money and prevented the damage from occurring. Financial institutions should strengthen their efforts to prevent fraud cases and educate the public.

The number of cases of children being involved in sexual crimes, such as being forced to send naked pictures of themselves over social media, is increasing. Against the backdrop of increasingly younger children using smartphones, the number of elementary school students who have been victims of such crimes has also been growing.

It is important to teach children both at school and at home that there are dangers lurking in social media and to set rules for their use.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 17, 2024)