Sold to gangs, forced to run online scams: inside Cambodia’s cybercrime crisis

Sold to gangs, forced to run online scams: inside Cambodia’s cybercrime crisis

hen the advert popped up on Ly Thi Lan’s* Facebook feed, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. An employer in Cambodia was looking for new staff, the only requirement was computer skills, and the salary was generous, especially compared with her factory job in her home country, Vietnam. She would be able to save money, and pay for health treatment she needed. Her husband decided to go as well. “I just wanted to go there to have a better job, earn money to pay for a better life,” she says.

But when she arrived, she found it wasn’t a typical admin job. Her role was to scour the internet for victims she could trick into investing in an online scam. If she refused to do the work, she was told that she would be taken to the eighth floor of the building compound, beaten or electrocuted, she says. Lan was later told by other workers she had been sold to a criminal gang, and that they were now owned by their company. She had no idea how or when this happened, only that she couldn’t return home without paying a huge ransom.

Lan is just one of thousands of estimated victims who have been trapped in such work in Cambodia, where scam operations proliferated during the pandemic. The issue became so acute that, in August, the US downgraded Cambodia to the worst level possible in its Trafficking In Persons annual report.

Prof Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, who visited Sihanoukville, a city at the centre of such operations, likened conditions in compounds to a “living hell” in his end of mission statement.

“We’re talking about at least thousands of cases, cumulatively, and less conservative figures could estimate even higher figures,” Vitit said of the scale of the trafficking.

Cambodia has over recent weeks begun cracking down on such establishments, raiding more than 10 condos and hotels in the capital, Phnom Penh, that were allegedly running illegal online activities, according to VOD English, which has covered the issue. It also reported that almost 1,500 foreign nationals were released during three recent raids in Sihanoukville.

Yet observers say such actions are unlikely to eradicate the problem, and that operations will probably move elsewhere. “It’s a global issue, they’re going to go to Myanmar, they’re going to go to other jurisdictions,” said Jason Tower, Myanmar country director for the United States Institute of Peace. Such criminal activities are already thriving in Myanmar, he added, which is in the midst of a deep political crisis prompted by the 2021 military coup, and where there is no effective law enforcement. Fattening the pig

Cambodia’s Sihanoukville was once a sleepy seaside town, but over recent years it has been transformed by Chinese investment into an enclave of casinos and luxury hotels. However, during the pandemic, as tourism was halted, their business and supply of labour from China dried up.

Buildings were adapted for new criminal enterprises, said Surachate Hakparn, assistant national police chief of Royal Thai Police. “Usually they have taken the [hotel] name plate out and built a high wall around it, and on top of the wall there is the spiked fence. Once you are in you can’t go out without permission,” he said.

Thai police managed to repatriate about 1,300 Thais between last November and March.

Surachate travelled to Sihanoukville in June aiming to rescue more Thai citizens but was hindered by a lack of cooperation from Cambodian authorities. If policing operations are to work, he added, “all police, in every country, [need to be] on the same team”. In recent comments, the prime minister, Hun Sen, appeared to take a tougher stance, saying: “Do not let Cambodia become a haven of crime, a place of money laundering, a place of human trafficking.”

Whether the Cambodian authorities will truly change their approach remains to be seen, Surachate said.

The US TIP report cited “endemic corruption” as a barrier to law enforcement. Officials reportedly complicit in various forms of trafficking were not being investigated, it said.

Cambodian officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Pham Nguyen Anh Tuan was stuck in the same compound as Lan, where they were forced to carry out romance-style scams centred around a fake online shop. “We called it ‘selling emotions’,” he says. He would trawl Facebook Dating for targets. “I’d pretend to be a woman to flirt with guys. After flirting back and forth to create trust in them, I lured them into buying stuff, like a pyramid scheme. […]

source Sold to gangs, forced to run online scams: inside Cambodia’s cybercrime crisis

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