Tokyo is one of the safest cities in the world. But wherever money changes hands, there is always going to be someone trying to get an illicit piece of the action. Stay alert so you don’t fall victim to these Tokyo scams.
Tokyo Scams : Fake Monks
As far as Tokyo scams go, this one is really on the low end. The scammer dresses as a monk and stands outside a train station or other public place, begging bowl held out. Sometimes they approach tourists, pressing a cheap plastic charm into their hands and asking for a “donation.”
In Japan, real monks do not beg in public. Japanese people donate money directly to temples. Anyone you see dressed as a monk begging for money is a scam artist. When the police approach these people, they usually claim to be cosplayers or actors.
Still, they aren’t as bad as some of the other Tokyo scams on this list. If you want to, give them 100 yen and pose for a picture with them. No one back home has to know they are con artists.
The 500 Won/Yen Coin Swap
This scam dates back to the 1990s. Back then, the Korean 500 won coin (top) and the old Japanese 500 yen coin (new version on the bottom) were exactly the same size, made of the same alloy, and were almost the same weight. The only difference is the value–the 500 won coin is only worth about a tenth of the value of a 500 yen coin. Although the coins were easy to tell apart by looking at them, vending machines weren’t so discriminating. In the 90s, one of the more common Tokyo scams was to use 500 won coins on vending machines, getting both a drink and a tidy profit in change.
The Japanese government changed the 500 yen coin in 2000, so this scam no longer works on machines. However, the coins are still around the same size and weight. Unscrupulous vendors might still try to pass a 500 won coin off on unwary travelers as part of their change.
First, let’s talk about “table charges.” These are not scams, though many tourists don’t see it that way. Many restaurants and bars are rather small, and some time in the past Japanese business owners came up with the notion that you should pay for the use of their space as well as the food. After the wait staff takes your order, they will bring a small snack to your table (peanuts, bread, etc.). The snack, despite appearing without a request, is not free (but it is also not very expensive). Though this seems unfair to many travelers, the practice is quite common in establishments throughout Japan. The restaurants will do this to Japanese and non-Japanese alike.
However, there are some scam restaurants in Tokyo. It isn’t just that they serve bad food, but the bill will be outrageously expensive. The owners make up something about “taxes” and “service charges” when the victim contests the bill. These Tokyo scams rely on tourists not being able to communicate with the police. A fairly typical example of this practice (and some things to watch out for) can be found here.
Credit Card Fraud
Even today, there are many Japanese establishments that do not accept credit cards. However, they have become a popular part of Tokyo scams, either by overcharging the victim or stealing the card and going on a shopping spree. Be aware of your wallet at all times. If you become a victim, contact your bank.
Drinking alone is never a good idea, and it’s even worse in Roppongi and Kabukicho. You go into a seedy-looking place, place an order, and the bartender or an accomplice spikes your drink, and you pass out shortly thereafter. This is an ongoing problem that occurs so frequently that the US Embassy has a page warning about it.
Usually this Tokyo scam is about money–thieves empty your wallet, steal your passport, wake you up yelling about how much (extra) money you owe them, or (in particularly brutal cases) drag you to an ATM and force you to withdraw money. But sexual assaults (on men and women) have been reported. Beware and party in groups.
Sexy Tokyo Ladies are Interested in You! Or Your Wallet…
This is another common Tokyo scam. Women will approach a man and ask him to buy her a drink, or to go with her to another bar. She will rack up a huge bar tab, which the man will not learn about until he gets the bill. The next day, she splits the profit with the bar and goes out to look for another man. Or they may skip the whole drinking thing and just spike your drink (above).
Most tourists aren’t going to rent a car during a trip to Tokyo. Why would they? Public transportation is cheap and plentiful. But not everyone stays in Tokyo, and the baggage required for certain trips can make trains impractical.
In this scam, the victim gets in a car accident with a local. Usually it’s just a fender bender, though in one notorious case (to our editor) it was a pedestrian walking behind the victim’s car and slamming both of his hands on the trunk. However it happens, the rest of the scam goes the same way–the local smiles, assures the victim that the accident is no big deal, there is no reason to call the police, etc. If there is damage to his vehicle, he claims that he will fix it himself.
Once the scammer parts ways with the victim, he immediately goes to the nearest police station and claims to be a victim of a hit-and-run. His back hurts and his vehicle is damaged, but luckily he got the license plate of the foreigner that hit him! And at that point, the expenses spiral out of control.
If you are unfortunate enough to get into an auto accident in Japan, ALWAYS CALL THE POLICE! Render aid and assistance if necessary, but DO NOT APOLOGIZE! Although apologizing is a common (and meaningless) reaction to a car accident in English-speaking countries, it can be construed as an admission of fault in Japan.
In 2014, fake police were a big enough problem that Debito Arudou wrote a piece about it in the Japan Times. These Tokyo scammers would approach foreigners (usually women) and demand to see their “gaijin cards” (immigration ID) in order to get their personal information. Particularly bold ones would attempt to “arrest” their intended victim and take them somewhere else for whatever nefarious purpose. Although this scam is relatively rare, an unwary person can end up in a vulnerable situation.
Dr. Arudou covers this topic thoroughly in the linked article. In short, you can demand to see (and photograph) their badge, and insist that any discussions take place at a koban (one of the small police boxes located just about everywhere). People can buy fake badges, but a demand to go to a real police box will send these scammers running away in a hurry.
Sayonara, No Last Paycheck for You
Most people and companies assume that foreign workers will only stay in Japan a short period of time before returning home. Some unscrupulous companies have taken to exploiting those workers who leave by keeping their last paycheck. Since they have returned home, the former employee has no means of fighting the company for their pay. Even worse, some of these companies do not declare the person as an employee, avoiding certain taxes and putting the burden of figuring out their income taxes on the worker.
Before accepting a job in Japan (or anywhere, really), be sure to read reviews about the company and the contract you sign. A little research can prevent you from being scammed by business owners.
Did we miss something? Have you fallen victim to a scam that you want to warn others about? Send us an email and let us know!