• Crime & Courts

Lawyer, Others Held Over Defrauding Romance Scam Victims; Group Allegedly Made Empty Promises to Recover Money

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Osaka prefectural police

OSAKA — An 82-year-old lawyer and three others were arrested Tuesday on suspicion of collecting retainer fees from romance scam victims despite knowing that there was no prospect of recovering the victims’ money.

The Osaka prefectural police arrested Takao Takehara, a lawyer representing Tokyo-based RMC Law Office, for allowing his name to be used to collect the fees. The other three were former RMC employee Yasuhiro Yamane, 55, from Yotsukaido, Chiba Prefecture, and company executives Kazunori Taniai, 53, from Fuchu, Tokyo, and Junichi Muramatsu, 41, from Minami Ward, Saitama.

The law office allegedly collected over ¥100 million from about 300 people as retainers, prompting the prefectural police to investigate the actual situation.

A rapid increase in romance scams has triggered a series of similar frauds, in which attorneys receive large retainers without any prospect of recovering the swindled money, but Tuesday’s arrests are believed to be the first such arrests in Japan.

According to investigators, Takehara, Yamane and Taniai conspired to have Muramatsu use Takehara’s name as an attorney. Between November 2021 and September 2022, Muramatsu — without having qualifications as a lawyer — is suspected of having provided advice and guidance to five romance fraud victims on how to get their money back. Muramatsu received a total of ¥3.2 million in retainers from the five people, but collected almost none of the money they lost to the romance scams. The police suspect that Takehara was paid for lending his name to the scheme.

Recovering money from fraud is a legal matter, and the Attorneys Law prohibits people who are not qualified as lawyers from engaging in such legal activities as being paid to collect money. The law also prohibits attorneys from allowing such people to use their names. Takehara, Yamane and Taniai were arrested for violating the latter article, while Muramatsu was arrested for the violation of the first article.

From October to November, the Osaka prefectural police arrested Yamane, Taniai and Muramatsu on suspicion of falsely claiming in RMC’s online advertising that the office had a track record of recovering swindled money and defrauding three men and a woman of a total of about ¥6.3 million in retainers in 2021.

Takehara, from Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, registered with the Tokyo Bar Association in 1971. He was told to suspend operations for 10 months for having a clerk without lawyer qualifications handle multiple debts in 2000 and then was told again to suspend operations for six months for fraudulently obtaining a certificate of residence in 2021.

Romance scammers deceive people by becoming close to them by such means as social media.

According to the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, the number of consultations regarding this type of scam jumped from 45 in fiscal 2018 to about 1,000 in fiscal 2022, with damage of about ¥420 million in total.

Last resort

A woman in her 50s in the Kanto region said catchy phrases on RMC’s ad reading “We keep lawyers with expertise in fraud ready” or “We are open 24 hours a day” caught her eye in December 2021.

About two years earlier, the woman had been sweet-talked by a man claiming to be a trader whom she met on social media. She ended up depositing about ¥65 million into an app that allowed her to invest in virtual currency.

Her balance on the app suddenly dropped to zero, and that made her suspect that she was being scammed. The man had called her “my wife” and “my only one” and invited her to invest every day.

The woman contacted RMC in desperation. A person in charge at the office told her that the firm had a track record of recovering damages, and she immediately paid a retainer of ¥2.1 million.

The person then told her on a Line app: “We are well versed in the latest tactics. Please feel safe having us take care of it.”

When the woman pointed out a lack of progress, the person kept saying, “Everyone else is in the same situation.” The communication took place mainly via Line, and she had never met Takehara, she said.

The woman was contacted by the Osaka prefectural police’s investigators around this spring and was told that the office was suspected of having engaged in illegal activities. She still has not received her retainer back.

“I believed that the law firm was a last resort,” she said. “I cannot forgive them for trampling on the hearts of the victims.”