To Ali, it seemed like a great way to make more money. The 23-year-old earned $350 per month as a cleaner in a factory at home in Malaysia. But in April, he was purportedly offered a job in Cambodia making four times as much working in finance, despite having no prior experience in the field.
Shortly after flying to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, Ali realized he had been duped. His passport was taken, and he was driven to a compound where he says he was trapped. Armed guards stood by the doorways to prevent him from fleeing.
“I was their slave,” said Ali, whose name has been changed because he fears the syndicate he escaped from might come after him.
He slept in tight quarters with other victims who were all forced to work 15 hours a day in an online fraud factory, trying to coax people into cryptocurrency scams. They met the people they targeted through social media, as well as dating apps, and they tried to develop an online friendship or romance to gain their trust. But Ali says he was such a bad con man that he was frequently assaulted by his captors.
“The punishments are like the ones during the time of the pharaohs [of ancient Egypt],” Ali said. He described getting beaten across his face, arms, stomach and legs.
“I cried, I asked for help from Allah to ease my situation so I can get out of this hell,” Ali said. “They were cruel. They hit me so hard that I was dazed. They gave me black eyes.”
Victim advocacy groups say Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are major hubs for these scam centers because they have lawless areas.
“Money talks in these places and they can payoff local authorities,” said Elisa Warner a communications specialist with the Global Anti-Scam Organization. Warner said the people who control these operations are typically Chinese nationals and the number of trafficking victims from across Asia trapped inside “might be well into the tens of thousands.” Cambodia recently conducted raids on many alleged scam centers freeing more than a thousand victims.
“That’s winning the battle but not the war,” Warner said. “We believe the operations that were raided picked up and moved elsewhere.”
The Malaysia International Humanitarian Organization told VOA there are probably between one and two thousand Malaysians trapped in fraud factories in Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia — based on information it received from current victims and some who were recently freed.
During the past several months, hundreds of Malaysian victims have flown home after escaping, being rescued or in some cases their families paid tens of thousands of dollars in ransom fees.
“I would say it’s modern-day slavery,” said Michael Chong, head of the Malaysian Chinese Association Complaints Department, which helps bring victims home and tries to prevent more Malaysians from falling into this trap.
While scams and human trafficking have been around for generations, Chong said there has been a significant increase in the number of victims from Malaysia this year. They’re often lured by social media posts promising high paying jobs.
Chong said the syndicates target Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese. Even though they make up less than a quarter of Malaysia’s population, they’re more than 80 percent of the country’s victims because they can often speak Chinese and English.
“The more languages they know the more people they can scam,” Chong said.
Victims’ families and activists have held demonstrations to draw attention to this issue.
“We want all of the victims freed and brought home,” said Hishamuddin Hashim secretary-general of the Malaysia International Humanitarian Organization which coordinated several demonstrations. “We need the international community to get more involved to put a stop to this.”
Ali said he escaped his captors in Cambodia during a brief period when he was left unguarded while being transferred from one syndicate to another after being sold. He said he’s lucky that he got away after two months in captivity because many others who try to run away are killed.
Ali warns people that if a job opportunity sounds too good to be true then it probably is.
“If you get that type of offer don’t go,” Ali said. “I have been conned so I know that you shouldn’t listen to their lies.”