Japan's criminal gangs recruit criminals online
Risa Yamada grew up an orphan and struggled to find a stable job until she came across one of the many job offers posted on social media by Japanese criminal gangs. Hired to impersonate a police officer, Risa prospered through phone calls in which He took hundreds of thousands of dollars from lonely, rich and naive old people.
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"I didn't think I would ever be able to work a normal job," the 27-year-old woman told a Tokyo court in July, which ended up sentencing her to three years in prison. "For the first time in my life, they told me that she was good at something (...) Work made me feel necessary," she admitted.
The young woman is not the only one to have been seduced by the "yami baito" - a black market for part-time jobs - offered on the social network X and other platforms. In Japan's criminal underworld, social media offers a way to contact anyone, from teenagers to pensioners, willing to commit a crime to make money.
In 2022, Damage caused by "yami baito" gangs and other fraud organizations increased by 30% compared to the previous year, reaching 37 billion yen (about 250 million dollars), the first increase in eight years. Black market job ads long appeared in magazines or on stickers in public bathrooms.
Its proliferation online allows recruiters to "relax in an air-conditioned room, sip coffee and use a cell phone to round up a group of thieves," says Noboru Hirosue, a crime sociologist. Additionally, online platforms, especially encrypted messaging apps like Telegram or Signal, help the gang remain anonymous and untraceable.
A former employee of these groups explains that his supervisor directed him through Telegram to leave packages of illicit money in train station lockers. At the end of each day, several anonymous Telegram messages with emoticons thanked him for his work and informed him where that day's pay was hidden.
"It's like a video game: they give you tasks, you complete missions and you get rewards," says the 57-year-old who, after time in prison, works in a hostel. "You don't even feel guilty because you don't see anyone," says the man who requests anonymity.
In January, a 90-year-old woman in Tokyo died after being gagged and beaten in her home by several men looking for something of value. The perpetrators of the assault, which shocked society and drew police attention to these crimes, were hired online, according to press reports.
The masterminds of the assault were a gang of Japanese men in the Philippines that they would have used Telegram to direct a group of subordinates to carry out assaults and frauds in Japan. The reasons for accepting these jobs are multiple. A former member of a fraud organization said that for him it was "making extra money so I can go a little crazy."
Dressed in a suit, he posed as a bank employee and visited nursing homes whom he convinced to hand over their cards. In a few months he earned almost 10 million yen (66 thousand dollars / 1.17 million Mexican pesos), says the 31-year-old man.
"All I was thinking about was how I would get drunk again that night (...), drinking expensive champagne in hostess bars," explains the man, who ended up spending two years in jail.
The police try to remove ads from criminal groups and offer rewards of up to one million yen (about $6,600 / 117,760 Mexican pesos) for information about the gangs that publish them. Recruits are "exploited and used as pawns" by gang leaders, the National Police Agency said in a statement to AFP.
Of the nearly 13,100 people arrested on charges of organized fraud between 2018 and 2022, only 2% held senior positions in the hierarchy of these gangs, according to police data. There are also many stories of people being forced to reveal private information about themselves and their families, including mailing addresses, in case they leave the organization.
The AFP agency was unable to contact X for comment. Telegram said it "proactively" monitors the public parts of the platform and that users can report illegal content in private groups.
Yamada, although happy at first, later discovered how ugly things could get. In 2019, the band that had hired her sent her a plane ticket and she flew to the Philippines. There she was trained along with others to make hundreds of calls to elderly people in Japan and locked in a hotel under close surveillance where she feared for her life. She believes a classmate was murdered. In fact, her arrest came as a relief to her: "I thought I was finally freed."
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