Inside the ‘living hell’ of Cambodia’s scam operations | #philippines | #philippinesscams | #lovescams

SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia: Trafficked, beaten and locked upfar from his family in China, Lu was one of thousands of people in Cambodiaforced to operate online scams to line their captors’ pockets.

Covid-19 shutdowns had left the builder out of work, so whenhe heard he could earn $2,000 a month on a construction project in Cambodia, hejumped at the chance.

But he soon realized he had been lured by a scamming gang toa compound in the seaside resort of Sihanoukville, along with hundreds ofothers.

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There, he was forced to work 12- to 16-hour shifts, trawlingsocial media and dating apps on a hunt for victims to scam out of huge sums.

“Once I arrived, it was too late to escape,” Lutold Agence France-Presse (AFP). “But as long as I was alive, I would keeptrying.”

People from countries around Asia — including Vietnam, thePhilippines, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Bangladesh and India— have been sucked into similar operations.

Some, like 34-year-old Lu, have made it out, thoughthousands of others are feared still trapped.

In August, Vitit Muntarbhorn, the United Nations specialrapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, said the traffickingvictims “were experiencing a living hell often resulting in torture andeven death.”

Metal bars and barbed wire

Sihanoukville was once a sleepy resort town, but it wastransformed by a vast influx of Chinese investment.

Dozens of casinos sprang up in recent years, making it a hubfor Chinese gamblers and drawing in international crime groups.

As travel restrictions bit during the pandemic, these groupsshifted their focus.

Jeremy Douglas of the United Nations Office for Drugs andCrime (UNODC) said “criminal groups moved casino businesses online, andsome then did a pivot and added online and phone scams.”

One gang member told AFP on condition of anonymity that thefirst people to fall prey to operations like his were Chinese citizens alreadyin Cambodia.

Then gangs started trafficking people into the country.

Douglas said “thousands, and some have estimatedpossibly tens of thousands” of people have been ensnared.

To stop victims from escaping, compounds were installed withmetal window bars and barbed wire.

“Once they arrived in the compound, they could notleave,” the gang member said. “People were beaten or tortured andsold if they refused to scam others.”

Within Cambodia, some were sold on to other gangs, thesource said. Those with good information-technology or English-language skillscould be sold for up to $50,000.

‘The real mafia’

AFP interviewed four trafficking victims who said they also receivedlucrative job offers during the pandemic.

A 38-year-old Malaysian Chinese man called Roy describedflying to Phnom Penh and being met by a woman in smart office wear who whiskedhim through immigration and into a car for the five-hour drive toSihanoukville.

There, he was taken to a complex of apartment blocks a dozenor so stories tall, housing a mix of accommodation and office rooms.

“It just looked like a normal office, with three rowsof tables with monitors and keyboards, just like a cybercafé,” Roy toldAFP.

But he said “once you get in you know you’re not doingcustomer service.”

Roy and others like him had their passports taken away, andwere instructed to set up fake profiles on apps and dating sites includingTikTok, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Under the constant threat of violence, they would groomtargets to pour money into cryptocurrency or other investment platforms.

Others were forced to build online “love”relationships with their targets and to scam them under the guise of needinghelp to pay debts off.

There are no reliable figures on how much money the gangshave netted from the scams, though Douglas said the numbers were “staggering.”

It is not clear where the money ends up, he added, thoughcriminal proceeds are often bundled together with online betting profits, withmany of the scam compounds located near legal gambling businesses.

The gang member in Sihanoukville told AFP he did not knowwho he was ultimately working for.

“We don’t know who is who,” he said. “Theyare the real mafia.”

‘Shock, kick, shock’

Forced scammers who resisted paid a high price. Constructionworker Lu said he was “beaten quite often” because he was caughttrying to escape.

Others said gang members used electric batons to inflictshocks, or forced workers into rooms too small to stand in, depriving them ofwater, food and light for hours.

“They ask someone to lie down and then kick them, likea dog,” Roy said. “Sometimes, [they would] get an electric shock,kick and shock. They would get a five minute to 10-minute beating.”

Some, like Roy, were fortunate.

After being told he would have to buy his way out for$20,000, he was rescued after contacting Taiwanese victims group GlobalAnti-Trafficking Organization (GASO).

The group works with Cambodian officials to facilitaterescues and repatriate citizens.

Others have taken a more dramatic approach: in August,dozens of Vietnamese workers escaped a casino in southern Kandal province andswam across a river back to their homeland.

Attention on the issue has grown: the United States in July downgradedCambodia in its annual human trafficking report.

After months of official denials, Prime Minister Hun Senordered a hunt for ringleaders and authorities launched a string ofhigh-profile raids in August.

In September, police freed more than 1,000 foreigners fromthree Sihanoukville compounds.

At one site, a swoop netted nearly 9,000 mobile phones, 800computers — and chillingly, handcuffs and electric shock instruments.

It was during one such raid that Lu was released.

Crackdown or relocation?

Still, international observers and rights groups are skepticalof the depth of the government’s crackdown.

Jacob Sims, International Justice Mission’s Cambodiadirector, said the efforts needed to go further than raids and rescues.

“Criminal accountability for the ringleaders of thetransnational organized crime networks is absolutely essential if we hope toeradicate this issue,” he said.

There are fears that rather than shutting down, the groupsare simply relocating.

“Today it is an operation in Cambodia, but tomorrow agang under pressure uproots and shifts to Myanmar, Laos or the Philippines —and this has happened,” Douglas said.

Back in Cambodia, those rescued by police, like Lu, face anuncertain future.

While he has evaded immigration detention, he told AFP hecannot afford to return to his wife and nine-year-old child in China.

A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry told AFP thegovernment was working with Cambodia and other countries to fight transnationalcrime, and that it “resolutely upholds both the safety and legal rightsand privileges of Chinese citizens abroad.”

According to Lu, he received no help from the Chineseembassy.

“The Chinese embassy only has one thing to say: ‘Adultshave to pay for their decisions,'” he said.

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