'Like a video game': Japan's gangs hire online
09 November 2023
Tokyo (AFP) -
Risa Yamada grew up fatherless and struggled to find consistent work until she stumbled on an intriguing job listing: one of a growing number of advertisements posted on social media by Japanese criminal gangs.
Hired to impersonate a police officer, she thrived, wheedling hundreds of thousands of dollars out of Japan's many lonely, wealthy and naive elderly people on the phone.
'I didn't think I could ever work a normal job,' the 27-year-old told a Tokyo court in July before being sentenced to three years in jail.
'For the first time in my life, I was told I was good at something... the job made me feel I was needed,' she said.
The young woman was far from the only unlikely criminal to be attracted by a 'yami baito' -- a black-market part-time job -- ad on X, formerly Twitter, and other platforms.
For Japan's criminal underworld, social media offers an anonymous way to connect with anyone from teenagers to pensioners who are willing to commit crimes to earn money.
In 2022, damage incurred by yami baito crime rings and other organised fraudsters soared 30 percent from the previous year to top 37 billion yen (around $250 million), the first increase in eight years.
- Gateway -
Black-market job advertisements have long appeared in Japanese magazines or on stickers in public toilets.
But thanks to their proliferation online, recruiters now can 'just relax in an air-conditioned room, sip coffee and use your mobile to assemble a group of robbers,' criminal sociologist Noboru Hirosue said.
Online platforms, especially encrypted messaging apps like Telegram and Signal, also help gangs remain nameless and untraceable.
A 57-year-old former yami baito hiree described how his supervisor would direct him via Telegram to drop parcels of illicit cash in train station lockers in Tokyo.
'It's like you're in a video game, where you're given tasks, complete missions and get rewards,' the man, who spent time in jail but now works at a hostel, said on the condition of anonymity.
At the end of each day, anonymous Telegram messages with emojis would thank him for his work and tell him where his day's pay lay hidden, waiting for him.
'You don't even feel guilty because you don't see anyone,' he said.
- Champagne celebrations -
In January a 90-year-old Tokyo woman died after being tied up and beaten in her house by several men looking for valuables.
The perpetrators of the assault, which shocked Japan and focused police attention on the problem of yami baito crimes, had reportedly been hired through online ads.
The kingpins were a Philippines-based gang of Japanese men, who reportedly used Telegram to direct a team of underlings who carried out break-ins and fraud schemes across Japan.
Those hired to go into crime have varying reasons for doing so. But for a 31-year-old former low-ranking member of an organised fraud group, it was to 'earn extra money so I can go a bit crazy'.
Donning a suit, he would pose as a bank official and visit the homes of elderly people, convincing them to hand over their cash cards. The gig earned him nearly 10 million yen ($66,000) in just a few months, he told AFP.
'All I could think about was I could get wasted again that night... drinking expensive champagne at hostess bars.'
He was eventually jailed for two years.
- Exploited -
Police have been scrambling to get criminal ads taken down and have offered rewards of up to 1 million yen (about $6,600) for information on the gangs behind them.
Criminal recruits are being 'exploited and disposed of as pawns' by gang leaders, the National Police Agency said in a statement to AFP.
Of the roughly 13,100 people arrested on organised fraud charges between 2018 and 2022, only two percent had occupied high-ranking gang positions, police records show.
Tales abound of applicants being forced to disclose personal information about themselves and their families, including home addresses, in case they quit.
X could not be reached for a comment, and Telegram said it 'proactively' monitors public parts of the platform and that users can report private groups.
Yamada found out how ugly things can get after she was sent an air ticket and flown to the Philippines in 2019 by the gang that had hired her on X.
There she and other recruits were trained to make hundreds of cold calls to elderly residents in Japan while cooped up in a hotel under close surveillance, fearing for their lives. She believes a fellow recruit was murdered.
When she was eventually arrested, she said, 'I thought I would finally be set free.'