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Society

Drug use up, burglary down as Japan's COVID crisis changes crime

Overall case count sinks 18% nationwide, but cyber offenses rise to record

Police guard a crime scene in Fukuoka, Japan. The pandemic has changed the nature of criminal activity.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's crime cases decreased last year as coronavirus-fearing residents stayed home, but drug offenses and cybercrime were on the rise.

Police report a 17.9% decline in cases nationwide to 614,231 for 2020, just one-fifth of Japan's postwar peak of 2.85 million cases, reached in 2002. The drop accelerates the downward trend in Japan's crime cases during recent years.

Yet the rise of telework and cashless payments granted a golden opportunity to hackers. Cybercrime grew to a record 9,875 cases last year.

Drug-related crimes also bucked the trend, as suspects rose 5.4%. Though drug smuggling dipped with the decline in international flights, marijuana possession involving young people increased conspicuously. A total of 5,034 suspects faced marijuana violations last year, up 16.5% to the highest figure on record.

Substance abuse in the pandemic era has been a problem across the Pacific as well. The U.S. logged more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths for the 12 months ended May 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Job loss, financial difficulties, and feelings of isolation and anxiety have been cited as factors.

"Crime has declined in many countries during lockdowns, but the number of crimes afterward exceed pre-COVID levels due to surging unemployment rates and greater social unrest," said Kaori Takagi, an analyst at Sompo Risk Management.

Incidents of U.S. mass shootings jumped by about 50% to 610 in 2020, figures from the Gun Violence Archive show -- the worst year in data going back to 2014. The site defines a mass shooting as an incident with at least four victims, excluding the shooter.

In France, crime fell steeply during the country's two lockdowns in 2020, government statistics show, including declines in theft and burglaries. But cases of domestic violence climbed 9%.

For Japan, the coronavirus has curbed many of the opportunities for crimes.

Larcenies, which account for nearly 70% of all crime nationwide, sank 21.6%. Street crimes such as purse snatchings and bicycle theft plunged 27.4% last year, outpacing the usual declines of around 10%. With more people working from home, burglars had fewer empty homes to target. Unlawful-entry crimes slid more than 20%.

White-collar crimes, including those involving fraud and embezzlement, fell just 5.5%. This was on par with violent crimes, such as robbery and arson, which declined 5.6%. Homicides inched down 2.2%, keeping the tally roughly in line with the previous year's.

The decreases continued into the first quarter of 2021, as larceny cases fell 22% on the year. Criminal cases dropped 18% overall during the period.

But telephone scams and other so-called special fraud began to increase early in 2021, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. Such cases rose 14% on the year for the first quarter. Scammers often fraudulently request money to book a vaccine appointment.

Refund scams, in which the victim transfers money in exchange for a nonexistent refund, roughly doubled on the year for the first quarter to 695 cases, according to the National Police Agency.

Some people who are middle-aged or older, and financially strapped due to COVID-19, are even accused of participating in scams by withdrawing money on behalf of criminals.

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