Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Thieves, hustlers exploit plight of quake victims in Kumamoto

Police officers patrol homes in Mashiki, Kumamoto Prefecture, on April 30. The officers were dispatched by Saga prefectural police to help their colleagues in quake-stricken Kumamoto Prefecture. (ChieKohara)
KUMAMOTO--Shortly after the magnitude-7.3 earthquake struck on April 16, a quake evacuee returned in the predawn darkness to her apartment building where she saw a bluish-white light moving on the second floor.
She ran up the stairs and confronted a pudgy man and another younger-looking man, demanding to know what they were doing in a storage room of the building she owns in this city’s Chuo Ward.
“We entered the room because we heard somebody shouting ‘help,’” one of them said.
The 46-year-old woman didn’t buy the excuse.
“No one lives here! You must be thieves,” she replied.
She was right.
The case is one of 34 thefts and attempted thefts confirmed by Kumamoto prefectural police as of May 2, more than two weeks after the series of the earthquakes began hitting the prefecture on the southern main island of Kyushu on April 14.
Thieves and hustlers are taking advantage of the plight of quake victims. Vacated homes are targeted, and swindles on the street or by phone have become a problem. Some unscrupulous individuals are even pretending to be quake victims to profit from the kindness of strangers.
The building owner had fled to a nearby park after the 1:25 a.m. earthquake, taking some belongings from the storage room and leaving it unlocked. She would not have caught the two men had she not returned to the building to retrieve a blanket two-and-a-half hours later.
“I find it maddening and saddening that those men were committing a crime while we were going through a difficult time following the quakes,” she said.
Police arrested the two men, a 30-year-old company employee and a 21-year-old worker, both from Omuta in neighboring Fukuoka Prefecture, on suspicion of unlawful entry and attempted theft.
“We came to Kumamoto with the purpose of stealing because we believed many houses would be left unlocked in the quake’s immediate aftermath,” police quoted one of the suspects as saying.
The other suspect reportedly said, “I thought it would be a great opportunity to reset my life by getting big money.”
Kumamoto prefectural police have beefed up patrols to deter thieves. An additional unit of 28 officers dispatched by five other prefectures on Kyushu are helping out, primarily by keeping a watch on damaged houses of residents who are now staying in evacuation centers or camping outdoors in fear of the continuing aftershocks.
Although Japanese are often praised for their orderly demeanor after natural disasters, some do attempt to profit illegally under the chaotic circumstances.
According to the National Police Agency, 1,108 cases of burglaries of empty houses were reported in Fukushima Prefecture between March and December 2011, after tens of thousands of residents were displaced by the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
The number was about 500 more than the figure for the same period the previous year.
In Joso, Ibaraki Prefecture, more than 20 thefts were reported within several days after the city was hit hard by flooding in September 2015.
Wrongdoing is not limited to stealing.
On April 23, a man gave a sob story about how he was a “victim of the Kumamoto quakes” to a 19-year-old college student in Satsuma-Sendai in Kagoshima Prefecture, south of Kumamoto Prefecture. She offered him 10,000 yen ($94) after their talk on the street.
The 23-year-old man, of no fixed address, was arrested the following day. He admitted he was not a quake victim, according to police.
In Kamiamakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture, municipal authorities were alerted to a man posing as a city government employee who visited the home of an elderly man in late April to seek “relief money.”
But the resident became suspicious and refused to provide any cash.
After the incident, city authorities urged residents to be aware of scams, saying the city would never visit homes to raise money.
Nine cases of suspicious phone calls soliciting donations for Kumamoto quake victims have also been confirmed, according to the NPA.
(This article was compiled from reports by Chie Kohara, Daisuke Ono, Yudai Ogata and Rei Inoue.)

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