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Japanese Victims of Identity Theft

Dec. 19, 2016

NHK reviewed thousands of files in the so-called "Panama Papers," and found that some Japanese people have been caught up in murky dealings without their knowledge.

The documents that have come to be known as "the Panama Papers" continue to shock the world. The data was leaked from the law firm Mossack Fonseca, which is based in the Central American country.

The data contains information on more than 210,000 shell companies. It reveals the hidden assets of world leaders and their associates.

"The Panama Papers" data was first leaked to German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung. It was then brought to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or ICIJ.

Our NHK team reviewed thousands of files for signs of Japanese involvement, and found cases of stolen personal information being used in tax havens.

One of the names appearing in the Panama Papers is that of a university employee. He is registered as the director of a company set up in the British Caribbean territory of Anguilla, a tax haven. He asked that we not reveal his identity. We showed him some documents about the company.

"It doesn’t ring any bells at all," he said.

The man told us that the phone bill attached to the document is fake, and not the one he provided. But the passport photo looks like the real thing.

"It makes me really uncomfortable. This was definitely done without my consent, so I’d like to do something about it. I’d like to get this fixed," he said.

The man says he has never lost his passport, but he once sent a copy of it to a company so that he could rent a computer. Shortly after he sent that copy of his passport, the company was established in Anguilla.

Was the rental company the source of the leak? We asked the company about the coincidence and what we found was even more shocking. He was not the only person who sent identification to the company and later appeared in the Panama Papers -- there were at least 5 other individuals.

The computer company admits there's a distinct possibility that personal information was leaked. We came to the conclusion that someone must have set up these shell companies using stolen identification.

Almost all the companies are listed as operators of online dating sites. Such sites are often accused of ripping off male customers. Police suspects that revenue from these companies goes to the Japanese mafia.

Emi Tatara is another person who rented a computer from the company. She lives on a small island in the western part of Japan, where she works at an agricultural processing company.

She had also been listed as the director of a company she has never heard of, one that runs an online dating site.

"It really scares me. Whatever this company is up to, I want no part of it," Tatara says.


NHK World's Kanami Hashimoto joins anchor Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Shibuya: Kanami, just how was the personal information stolen from the PC rental company?

Kanami: The company told us they're looking into how that happened.

Shibuya: How did that information end up being used to set up companies in Anguilla?

Kanami: This is the process we pieced together. First, someone illegally obtained personal information. It was then passed on to an intermediary in Hong Kong. The intermediary sent the information to Mossack Fonseca’s Hong Kong office and asked it to form a company. The process involved several actors at different steps along the way.

Shibuya: Do we have any idea who's behind this?

Kanami: We went to Hong Kong to find out. In Hong Kong, we worked with a local media outlet called HK01. They've also been investigating the Panama Papers.


Tracing the Hong Kong Connection

Hong Kong is the financial heart of Asia. There are over 2,000 intermediaries working with Mossack Fonseca. Emi Tatara flew there to find out how her name was attached to a company on the other side of the world -- and she wanted to shut down that company.

She headed to the place which had set it up, the Hong Kong office of Mossack Fonseca. She met a woman there who is also named in the Panama Papers in connection with the Anguilla company.

"Closing the company will cost money, and this fee will have to be paid by her as the owner," an employee at the office said. "The intermediaries are responsible for the company. We are not responsible since we are just doing what the intermediaries asked us to do."

The office worker suggested contacting the administrator of the company in an effort to find out who used Tatara's stolen passport.

NHK and HK01 located the intermediary connected with Tatara's case and identified in the Panama Papers. We managed to catch up with that intermediary -- she turned out to be a Chinese woman fluent in Japanese.

"We cannot disclose that sort of information. It would be against the rules," the woman said, adding that her company doesn't have to verify the identity of those who register such companies.

We told her that other Japanese people had their identities stolen. She revealed that a single Japanese investment firm had been responsible, but she refused to share any more details. And she insisted repeatedly that her firm had not broken any laws.

Tatara simply wants to bring an end to her personal nightmare.

"I feel my identity has been marred, invaded. This is not the way I want to live. I want my normal life back. But I really don't think it is going to be easy," she says.


Shibuya: Why do you think this information was stolen?

Kanami: We assumed that the stolen names were used to conceal the identities of the people who operate underground businesses.

Shibuya: Are there any new developments in this case?

Kanami: HK01 recently ran the story, and the Hong Kong police are interested in the case. But they haven't done anything so far. We will continue to investigate the case and try to find out who used the personal information to set up shell companies.