BANGKOK - A top U.N. official last week said the syndicates running Asia's massive online fraud industry will rotate operations among lawless areas of Southeast Asia unless governments cooperate to bring them down, after Cambodia said it was cracking down on cybercrime compounds.
The networks have swindled hundreds of millions of dollars, regional police have told VOA, setting up fake profiles offering romance, moonshot investment schemes with huge returns or posing as police officers to solicit payoffs. They target residents of countries from China to Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, the United States and Australia.
"The response needs to be strategic and regional, because today it might be a location in Cambodia but tomorrow a group uproots under pressure and shifts to Myanmar, Laos or the Philippines," Jeremy Douglas, the Bangkok-based regional representative of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime told VOA.
"Until governments across the region address, disrupt and police the places organized crime groups are using to run online casinos, scams and other illicit businesses, and in particular special economic zones and autonomous regions, the situation won't fundamentally change," he said.
Compounds for industrial-scale scamming in are operated in converted casinos in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, as well as special economic zones in Myanmar and Laos by Chinese gangsters who dominate regional gambling but lost their main income source during the pandemic, according to Douglas and victims who spoke to VOA.
The foot soldiers of the operations are young Chinese and Southeast Asians. Some joined willingly, many others thought they had obtained high-paying overseas work in call centers or online sales.
Malaysian, Taiwanese and Thai officials have said hundreds of their citizens remain trapped in a Myanmar border zone tied to scam operations, run by ethnic militias and beyond the law, despite its location a few hundred meters from Thailand.
Chou Bun Eng, vice chair of Cambodia's National Committee for Counter Trafficking in persons, said Cambodia is a victim of sophisticated criminal gangs and is doing everything it can to put the syndicates out of business.
"We began an operation on August 22 throughout the kingdom," she told VOA by phone.
"We are aware that there are victims all over the kingdom in what is a new form of crime committed by foreigners. ... Cambodia does not serve criminals," she said.
Social media videos since the crackdown have shown thousands of people apparently leaving several Sihanoukville megacompounds, in images shared by Douglas.
State media in China, the source of most of the workers and the biggest target, said the country is barring its citizens from traveling to Cambodia without good reason and warned telecommunications companies that they could be held responsible for scams carried out over their networks.
On Sept. 23, however, Cambodian authorities said at least one person had died after a boat carrying dozens of Chinese people sank on its way to Sihanoukville. Cambodian state media Fresh News said they had traveled from, Guangdong, hundreds of kilometers away. The incident is suspected of being tied to scam operations and now under investigation.
Ransoms and beatings
Disturbing testimony has emerged from scam agents who tried to leave the compounds, including reports of routine torture, sale to other networks and ransom payments required to gain freedom.
A 26-year-old Thai mother of three, told VOA she asked to quit her job in Manila after six days when she was forced to swindle women online.
She said she took an online sales job in early August, desperate for the $1,000 salary plus commissions. She said she soon realized her real job was to steal the identity of wealthy Thai men and persuade women looking for love to transfer money.
When she refused to work, she was taken to a room with others who had also refused.
"One by one, they took us out to kick, punch, claw our hair and zap us with electric wire," she said, asking that her name not be used, out of fear of reprisal.
"They forced the head of one of the older women underwater in the bathroom and then beat her some more."
It took another 14 days for her to get free with a $3,000 payment to break her verbal agreement and she returned to Bangkok on Aug. 27.
Once back, her boyfriend had to sell the equipment for his T-shirt business, sinking them further into money troubles, which had led to her leave Thailand in the first place.