Almost everyone with a mobile phone has been targeted by romance scammers. These apparently attractive people get in touch through social media, dating apps, or sometimes even just a text to offer companionship, love, or more.
But while these annoying catfishing messages are simply ignored by most of us, there’s a horrifying dark reality behind them, says investigative journalist Lindsey Kennedy. She managed to get inside one of the heavily guarded compounds where migrant workers are forced to work on romance scams – called ‘pig butchering’ by insiders. What she found inside was shocking.
“There was one in Kampot, in the south of Cambodia,” she told podcaster Andrew Gold. “It’s a very beautiful area, very touristy area – people go up there to take photos…”
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But, Lindsey explains, the disused casino at the top of the hill hides a sinister secret. “A lot of casinos got repurposed as scam centres during Covid …they went from doing gambling, then illegal online gambling, then scam sites,” she said.
This particular centre, which was run by a local gangster known as Big Fatty, was raided after Thai officials pressured the Cambodian government into taking action. It has already reopened, but during the brief shutdown, Lindsey managed to sneak inside to get a first-hand look at the conditions the romance scammers had been working in.
“We climbed over the fences and managed to get a look inside,” she said. “It was everything that was being described by people who had recently managed to escape from there.
“You’ve got floors where people sleep, there’s normally about 10 to 16 bunk beds, and then the people work in the same building, where they are locked inside during the work day.
“But then you have rooms that are quite clearly the torture rooms. You could see chairs that are kicked backwards and lots of signs that people had been electrocuted. It was pretty horrific.”
Conditions inside were brutal. In one case the guards beat a pregnant woman so badly that she lost her baby.
The workers, who have in most cases been trafficked from other countries after being tempted by offers of well-paid work, are teated virtually as slaves. “The thought of being trapped in there for six or eight months, or how ever long people are being kept there, it’s just mind-blowing really,” Lindsey says.
Suicide is an every day fact of life in the scam centres. “People jump out of windows, or fall trying to escape through windows, all the time,” she explained. It’s understandable when you don’t know when you’re getting out… or you’re worried you might get sold on as well.”
Locals report that an ambulance would be called there at least once a week. Lindsey spoke to one former romance scam worker who had suffered a broken back trying to escape from one of the compounds – the guards just laughed at him as he tried to crawl to a nearby road
Romance scams are a cruel business, with hundreds of people in the West losing their life savings after being duped into parting with money in fake cryptocurrency schemes or sending cash for plane tickets or medical expenses to non-existent “lovers.”
But the people on the other end of the phones, Lindsey, says, stand to lose a lot more.
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