A shifty character named “Kariya” helped shady online dating sites avoid the law in Japan by establishing their headquarters abroad with passport information stolen from unsuspecting Japanese, an analysis of the Panama Papers showed.
The operation was apparently based in Anguilla, a British territory and known tax haven in the Caribbean, with possible links to Thailand.
The latest analysis of thousands of documents of the Panama Papers revealed that more than 10 companies set up in Anguilla were used as operators of online dating services in Japan.
With their headquarters in Anguilla, the operators of the dating sites could more easily conceal their identities if customers in Japan demanded refunds from the dating services.
The headquarters were set up under the names of several Japanese men and women, who said they had no idea they were company heads or exactly how their passport information was leaked.
The Asahi Shimbun has been working with Kyodo News and Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) to unravel the mystery behind these Anguilla companies.
The Asahi Shimbun is a partner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which two years ago broke the story about the Panama Papers along with the German daily newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
The electronic files were created by the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, which was involved in establishing various companies in tax havens until it closed its doors in March.
The latest cache of about 1.2 million electronic files includes an e-mail in Japanese sent from someone using the identity of Kariya. The message to the Hong Kong office of Mossack Fonseca asked that companies be established in Anguilla. Similar e-mails were sent between late 2015 and spring 2016.
Other documents showed that Mossack Fonseca lawyers were busy setting up the companies using copies of passports of Japanese nationals.
Reporters contacted several men whose passport information was stolen, including a 36-year-old therapist in Kanagawa Prefecture who said he had no idea where Anguilla was (although he had heard of Angola in Africa).
A 32-year-old man in Hokkaido who runs a massage salon said it was likely pure coincidence that his passport was used and that there was no action he could take.
However, a 35-year-old man living in Thailand provided a clue as to how his passport information came to be used.
“I have turned over copies of my passports to a number of people at currency exchange centers,” the man said. “There is no way I could identify where the information leaked from.”
Thailand is a common link among the three.
The men living in Kanagawa Prefecture and Hokkaido were in the Southeast Asian nation in November 2015 attending a school to gain certification as masseurs.
A reporter also sent an e-mail to an address found among the documents that appeared to be for Kariya.
A man called the reporter and admitted that his name was not Kariya, but Hayashi. He later admitted that name was fake, as well.
He said he worked in Hong Kong in investment and business management, and admitted to acquiring passport information of strangers over the Internet.
Information for one passport could be purchased for about 100,000 yen ($900), he said.
To make a profit, he said he established about 20 companies and sold them for about 200,000 yen each to operators of online dating services.
The man said he picked Anguilla to avoid possible Japanese police investigations.
Individuals who use fake personal information in Japan to establish a company could face criminal prosecution for falsifying notarized deeds, such as company registers. But doing the same thing outside Japan would avoid such investigations.
The operators of the online dating services with overseas headquarters use a shady method to turn a profit.
Before customers can exchange messages with potential date partners, they must purchase points through the use of their credit cards over the Internet.
Shigejiro Nishimura, a judicial scrivener who handles legal documents submitted to government offices for real estate transactions, inheritance matters and other legal issues, has helped victims of such online dating service scams.
Nishimura said egregious sites drive up the bills of their customers by having them exchange messages with “women” who are in on the scam.
Such sites often will shut down if complaints and negative reviews start circulating about them. But the operator will simply open another site under a different name.
Nishimura said foreign bases were chosen as company headquarters to avoid having to deal with complaints from victims seeking refunds of the money they have been charged.
Toru Morotomi, a finance professor at Kyoto University, said tax havens provide a “high level of confidentiality that makes it difficult to determine who the actual owner is.”
(This article was written by Sho Okano and Ei Takada.)