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Elderly robbed of life savings in Japanese crime wave -

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CHRIS UHLMANN: It's Japan's number one crime problem and it's on the rise. Every day about 30 elderly people are being defrauded out of their live savings. Last year the figure topped a staggering half a billion dollars.

Japan is considered one of the safest countries in the world but this crime wave is threatening to change that status.

North Asia correspondent Matthew Carney:

(Sound of phone ringing)

MATTHEW CARNEY: In a quiet suburb in Northern Tokyo last December, Haruko Tanaka received a desperate phone call from a person she believed was her son.

HARUKO TANAKA (translated): He said, "I've left money of my companies on a train and I need to replace it by this afternoon. So please Mum, send me $40,000."

MATTHEW CARNEY: She rushed to her local bank but the teller called the police. They checked with Haruko's son and discovered the caller was a fraudster.

The stories may differ slightly, it might be a traffic accident or "my girlfriend is pregnant," but they always manipulate the emotions and good intentions of parents or grandparents.

HARUKO TANAKA (translated): I was in panic at that time. I believed it was my son and what he said.

MATTHEW CARNEY: It's called the "it's me" fraud and police say it's the number one crime problem in Japan. Last year, elderly people were defrauded about half a billion dollars in 12,000 cases, and this year the figures are on track to be even bigger.

The head of Tokyo's special fraud task force, superintendent Ryuji Hatayama, says it's proving difficult to investigate and arrest ringleaders.

RYUJI HATAYAMA (translated): This is low risk and high return for organised groups like the Yakuza. The leaders stay in safe locations and just make the calls. They then send out young men to collect the money, but they are not told anything about the syndicate that they are working for so it's difficult to trace.

MATTHEW CARNEY: Police say the "it's me" fraud is creating a new generation of criminals, enticing young people with promises of getting rich quick.

Superintendent Hatayama:

RYUJI HATAYAMA (translated): Youth like university students and even high school students who were previously never involved in crime are being arrested for the first time.

MATTHEW CARNEY: So far the police have arrested 1200 perpetrators of the crime and last week the Tokyo police caught one of the bosses. He's alleged to be part of a Yakuza gang that stole half a million dollars. They posed as policemen over the phone to extract money from the elderly and sent boys to collect.

This is Matthew Carney reporting from Tokyo.