By David Whitehouse
Cryptocurrencies are the preferred method of payment for criminal Chinese gangs operating in Cambodia and Myanmar, who are recruiting cyber slaves globally and forcing them to carry out online scams.
The financial victims of the scams, lonely hearts who are looking for a partner, are tricked into converting their savings into crypto, which they send to the scammers in a process known as “pig butchering.” The gangs then convert the money into real currencies, leaving a trial of human devastation behind them, says Mina Chiang, founder of the Humanity Research Consultancy (HRC) in Hove in the UK. The consultancy has met with former cyber slaves from as far away as the US. “It’s a global issue,” Chiang says.
The Cambodian government has estimated that between 80,000 and 100,000 people have been tricked into working as cyber slaves in Cambodia alone. The International Justice Mission (IJM), the world’s largest international anti-slavery organisation, has said the estimate may be conservative. There seems little doubt that the global financial victims of the online scams which the cyber slaves are forced to carry out number in the millions.
Chiang says that banks need to be aware that sudden large transactions involving crypto currencies may be a sign that their customer is getting scammed. HRC works with banks to help them spot the warning signs. Cyber scammers, she adds, are also operating in other countries including Laos, the Philippines, Nepal, and Dubai.
The slaves are often well educated, tech savvy, and speak more than one language. English speakers are prized as they have the ability to reach out and try to trick the biggest pools of potential financial victims. Research from HRC in April shows that cyber slaves come from a much wider range of origin countries than previously realised. There is usually a local human trafficking gang involved in each origin country, Chiang says.
The majority of the slaves are Chinese, HRC says, but the proportion coming from other countries is increasing. The list of known slave origin countries stands at: Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand, Uganda, the US, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.
Recruitment of the cyber slaves takes place through a variety of channels. The first contact can come through regular, legitimate employment websites or private job matching groups on social media. The initial approach can come in person from someone with a great idea about working in southeast Asia.
It can even be via the personal networks of the target cyber slaves. Some have reported being approached by old school or university friends already working in Cambodia or Myanmar. In fact, some of the cyber slaves are tasked with luring more people to come and join them in slavery. Many first travel to Thailand, before being forcibly taken to their real destination, Chiang says.
Traffickers also pretend to be potential customers for people such as interior designers or tour guides who can get lucrative work by coming to Cambodia. Other visitors to the country have simply been kidnapped on the street.
Abdus Salam from Bangladesh was trafficked from his home country to work in scamming compounds in Sihanoukville, where most of the Cambodian operations are concentrated. Sihanoukville has a large Chinese population, including criminal elements who find it easier to function there than in their own country.
The city was previously an online gambling hub, and was favoured by Chinese who were banned from operating gambling operations back home. Cambodia banned online gambling in 2019, and the country’s immigration department says that prompted over 400,000 Chinese to leave the country.
Those who remained needed to find a new line of activity. The solution was potentially even more lucrative than gambling. The well-equipped nature of the compounds suggests a professional, white-collar environment. That means law enforcement agencies have been slow to recognize the reality of cyber slavery, Salam told an online briefing on May 17. “It seems like a cool situation.”
The reality is quite different. The compound managers teach the scammers how to create the right kind of online profile to lure their victims. The idea is not to portray a fictional partner who is flashy and wealthy, but rather hard-working, reliable, caring and solvent. Between April and September 2022, Salam was sold four times to different cyber scam operations. He worked in three different compounds, all of which had security guards. Many of these guards had military training, and some of the slaves were also forced to work as guards.
Salam had his passport confiscated, was not allowed outside the compounds, worked for 18 hours a day and never had a day off. Some of the female slaves were sexually exploited, he said. “It was a very terrible situation,” he told the briefing. “In fact it’s a new form of modern slavery.” About 95% of the people who work in the compounds are being forced to do so, he said. Salam now works as Survivor Empowerment Officer at HRC.
Foreign governments need to do more to support rescued cyber slaves, Ling Li, a researcher on modern slavery at the University of Liverpool, told the briefing. She cited the case of a 16-year old girl from China with a violent father and a baby. She was trafficked after trying to run away from home, and believed her boyfriend who said they would be able to start a new life in Cambodia.
Ling Li supported the girl for months out of her own pocket after she was rescued, enabling her to get back to China. The girl ended up back at home with her violent father. Her last message to Ling Li was to explain that her father had taken the baby away.
The official Cambodian response to the problem oscillates between denial and sporadic attempts at action. A BBC documentary in April was dismissed by the Preah Sihanouk provincial administration in Cambodia as “baseless,” though the administration did not deny the validity of the footage. HRC says there is evidence that some Cambodian government officials and police are directly involved in selling victims. Chiang says that Cambodian government corruption extends right to the top.
Part of the problem is the Chinese tendency to view the cyber slaves as criminals who have left the country illegally. There is an increased Chinese government awareness of the problem, and China has tried to crack down on the compounds in Myanmar with limited success, Ling Li said. The police in Myanmar don’t have a good understanding of the problem, and rescue attempts are often hindered by communication difficulties, with many victims speaking Chinese dialects rather than Mandarin, she said.
Once released, cyber slaves in Myanmar and Cambodia are being charged with offences in violation of the internationally accepted legal principle of “non punishment” for offences committed under duress, Valentina Casulli, project officer at HRC, told the briefing. “Victim survivors need to be treated as experts on this crime,” rather than facing further punishment, Casulli said. There have even been reports of Cambodian police extracting further money from slaves once they have been rescued.
Taiwanese investigators have provided a lead that other countries need to follow. By October 2022, Taiwanese police had investigated and prosecuted more than 100 cases of Taiwanese human trafficking groups involved in luring and sending victims to scamming compounds in Myanmar and Cambodia, arresting more than 280 criminals.
Author: David Whitehouse
David Whitehouse is a freelance journalist in Paris.