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The number of Japanese people who killed themselves after making suicide pacts forged over the internet almost doubled last year. Ninety-one people topped themselves in groups after meeting on the net during 2005, compared with 55 in 2004 and 34 in 2003, when the National Police Agency in Japan began keeping records of the disturbing phenomenon.

Desperate individuals in their 20s accounted for 40 per cent of these figures, or 38 deaths, 39 were in their 30s, while eight youngsters between 10 and 19 ended their lives after forming online death pacts. Fifty four of the 91 suicides were males and 37 were females.

In response to this growing trend, Japanese ISPs have begun passing on details of people who post suicide pact messages on sites they host to police, local English language paper The Daily Yomiuri reports. Since October 2005 when ISPs drew up guidelines on the practice, and the end of 2005, police intervened in 12 cases involving information about 14 people, 12 of whom were taken into protective custody.

The BBC reports that Japan has one of the world's highest suicide rates and online pacts make only a small contribution to a much larger problem. A downturn in the Japanese economy was followed by an upsurge in suicide by 35 per cent in 1998. Deaths by suicide have exceeded 30,000 in every year since.

The idea of suicide pacts appeals to desperate individuals frightened of dying alone. Those that look will find no shortage of data online including an online guidebook that gives advice on the best locations to take your own life.

"Many people are too scared to die alone," said Yumiko Misaki, director of the Tokyo Inochi no Denwa (Phone of Life), a suicide counselling service, told Reuters. "So they reach each other through the internet and make arrangements.

"And the worst thing is that people are often very influenced by reporting on this, so it's likely to keep on increasing." ®

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