Cyberthieves are looting Japanese bank accounts in record numbers, and police say Chinese crime groups are increasingly to blame. Criminals stole 1.85 billion yen ($16 million) from accounts at lenders including Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MTU) and Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group (SMFG) in the first half of the year, surpassing the full-year record of 1.41 billion yen in 2013, according to Japan’s National Police Agency. Of 133 arrests related to the thefts during that time, Chinese nationals made up the largest group with 83, or 62 percent, almost double the arrests of Japanese. “We see a very deep Chinese connection in these cybertheft cases,” says Arichika Eguchi, the police agency’s director of cybercrime investigations. “Japanese people’s wealth is draining into China.”
The scams involve multiple steps, say police: Chinese gangs hack into Japanese bank accounts by tricking customers into opening malicious software or disclosing their passwords. They steal the money by transferring it to other accounts in Japan, then hire people who live in the country to withdraw the cash at ATMs. Those people deliver the money to colleagues in Japan who use it to buy goods that are shipped to China. There the products are sold, with the proceeds going to the ringleaders.
Japan’s biggest banks—Mitsubishi UFJ, Sumitomo Mitsui, and Mizuho Financial Group (MFG)—are alerting customers about the increase in online theft and compensating victims on a case-by-case basis, say spokesmen for the three companies. The country is an easy target because of its wealth and proximity to China, as well as lack of experience dealing with computer hacking, says Hiroshi Koide, an associate professor of artificial intelligence at Kyushu Institute of Technology. “Japanese people and companies aren’t very sophisticated when it comes to computer security,” says Koide, who advises the Fukuoka Prefectural Police on cybercrime countermeasures. “Japan’s huge assets ensure big profits.”
In Japan, many of the people arrested are the foot soldiers who withdraw cash for their bosses. “They’re usually exchange students and trainees from China” who accept employment without realizing they’re committing a crime, says Eguchi. “They think it’s just a part-time job.”
Dai Wan, a 22-year-old Chinese woman attending college in Japan, was arrested after withdrawing almost 12 million yen stolen from Japanese online-banking accounts, according to police in Kyoto. Acting on instructions received through the Chinese-language QQ text-message service, Dai allegedly took the money out of ATMs at convenience stores in the city over two months starting in March, says Kyoji Shibata of the Kyoto Prefectural Police’s anticybercrime department.
She is accused of sending the cash to other Chinese residents in Japan to buy luxury goods and diapers, which were probably shipped to China to be sold at higher prices, says Shibata. “The money they steal in Japan will end up giving them multiple returns in China,” he says. Dai was charged with theft and the transfer of criminal proceeds and is being detained for trial in Kyoto District Court, Shibata says. Dai’s lawyer, Hiromasa Nakaya, says his client wasn’t aware that she was committing a crime or working for gangs. She thought she was performing a legitimate part-time job, he says.
Customers visiting the website of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ—the lending unit of Mitsubishi UFJ—see a red-and-yellow warning sign with text urging them not to enter their passwords in response to e-mails purporting to come from the company. The site also alerts users to computer viruses and offers protective software. “It’s a game of cat and mouse,” said Japanese Bankers Association Chairman Nobuyuki Hirano, who is also president of Mitsubishi UFJ, at an October news briefing. “They always come up with tricks that seem to be one step ahead of our defenses.”