Journalist Zeke Faux’s new book Number Go Up investigating the Tether cryptocurrency leads him into a dark world of slave labour in Cambodia. #nigeria | #nigeriascams | #lovescams

Vicky acted thrilled when I wrote back. She told me that she lived in New York, too, where she ran a chain of nail salons, and that she’d moved from Taiwan five years ago on the advice of her uncle, a rich man who was “very good in financial fields”.

A photograph sent by “Vicky Ho” of what she said was her hotel room. 

I knew that Vicky’s real job was to use social engineering to defraud me. But she wasn’t very good at it. For one thing, she informed me it was raining in New York when I could see for myself it was sunny. When she sent a suggestive photo of her legs in bed, the view from her window didn’t look anything like New York. Her attempts at flirting sounded robotic: “I like to pursue romantic things like a healthy body and the surprise and preciousness of love.”

After a day, Vicky revealed her true love language: bitcoin price data. She started sending me charts. She told me she’d figured out how to predict market fluctuations and make quick gains of 20 per cent or more. The screenshots she shared showed that during that week alone she’d made $US18,600 ($30,000) on one trade, $US4320 on another and $US3600 on a third.

But Vicky told me I wasn’t ready to trade like her and recommended I read a few books about bitcoin first. For days, she went on chatting without asking for me to send any money. I was supposed to be the mark, but I had to work her to con me. She stuck to chitchat, brushing off my attempts to redirect the conversation. Her restraint was remarkable.

When I woke up to yet another text saying, “Love Did you sleep well last night,” I tried another way to show her I was a good prospect. I told her I wanted to buy a car, and sent a photo of a $US142,000 Tesla I coveted.

“I see the price is 142,200,” Vicky wrote.

“Yeah they are costly,” I said.

“As long as you like this, money is nothing,” she said.

Then she sent me a bitcoin price chart and told me she was going to make a new trade based on her data analysis. Finally, I was in. The next day, Vicky sent me a link to download an app called ZBXS. It looked pretty much like other crypto-exchange apps. “New safe and stable trading market,” a banner read at the top.

Then Vicky gave me some instructions. They involved buying one cryptocurrency using another crypto-exchange app, then transferring the crypto to ZBXS’s deposit address on the blockchain, a 42-character string of letters and numbers.

For a newbie, this might have been a little intimidating. But Vicky’s random text had found its way to pretty much exactly the wrong target. I’d been investigating the crypto bubble for more than a year, trying to figure out why the prices of bitcoin and hundreds of lesser coins – with ridiculous names like Dogecoin, Solana, Polkadot and Smooth Love Potion – were going up and up.

It seemed the logic of the financial world had broken down. Hardly anyone knew what cryptocurrencies were for. Even supposed experts couldn’t explain them. It was unclear why many of them should be worth anything at all. I was told again and again that crypto was the future of finance, technology and art, but as I travelled to cryptocurrency hot spots from Manhattan to Miami, the Bahamas, El Salvador and the Philippines, pretty much all I saw was empty hype and scams.

Vicky’s message was a clue about something crypto actually was good at: moving dirty money around the world. The ZBXS trades, she explained, hinged on a cryptocurrency called Tether. She told me it was safe because Tether is a “1:1 cryptocurrency with the US dollar, also known as a stablecoin”.

I decided to start with $US100 and ended up with 81 Tethers after paying a series of fees. Sure enough, after I transferred them to the address, they appeared in my account in the ZBXS app.

Vicky said that wasn’t enough. She told me I’d have to deposit $US500 in Tether to make the “short-term node” work. It was gibberish. When I didn’t send the money right away, she sent me a voice memo. “OK, Zeke, what are you doing?” she asked, in a high, soft, silky voice whose accent I couldn’t place. “I see you got my message. Why you not reply me back, huh?”

At this point, I decided I’d played this out long enough. “I have to tell you something,” I wrote. “I’m an investigative reporter. The reason I’ve been talking with you is I wanted to learn more about how these things work.”

“ohoh it’s not what you think,” Vicky wrote.

Then I saw her doe-eyed WhatsApp profile picture turn into a white dot. That was the last I would hear from Vicky.

I was especially interested in Vicky’s scam because I’d zeroed in on Tether as a target for my crypto investigation. The coin and the company behind it, also called Tether, were practically quilted out of red flags. Dreamed up by a former child actor from The Mighty Ducks, Tether was now run by an Italian former plastic surgeon who’d never given an interview and was rarely seen in public. New York’s attorney-general had accused Tether of lying about its reserves. It was unclear if any country at all was regulating it.

But Tether was at the centre of the crypto world: on some days, more than $US100 billion of it changed hands. Some called Tether the central bank of crypto. (A spokeswoman for Tether Holdings didn’t respond to inquiries for this excerpt. The company has said that it “co-operates on a near-daily basis with global law enforcement” and that it will freeze criminals’ wallets.)

Workers who missed quotas were beaten, starved. One worker had seen people injected with methamphetamine to increase productivity.

I’d been hearing rumours about illicit uses of Tether – I’d seen court documents containing intercepted messages from a Russian money launderer promoting it to his clients, for one thing – but pig-butchering was the most concrete example I found.

People around the world really were losing huge sums of money to the con. A project finance lawyer in Boston with terminal cancer handed over $US2.5 million. A divorced mother of three in St Louis was defrauded of $US5 million. And the victims I spoke to all told me they’d been told to use Tether, the same coin Vicky suggested to me.

Rich Sanders, the lead investigator at CipherBlade, a crypto-tracing firm, said that at least $US10 billion had been lost to crypto romance scams.

The huge sums involved weren’t the most shocking part. I learnt that whoever was posing as Vicky was probably a victim as well – of human trafficking. Most pig-butchering operations were orchestrated by Chinese gangsters based in Cambodia or Myanmar.

They’d lure young people from across South-East Asia to move abroad with the promise of well-paying jobs in customer service or online gambling. Then, when the workers arrived, they’d be held captive and forced into a criminal racket.

Thousands have been tricked this way. Entire office towers are filled with floor after floor of people sending spam messages around the clock, under threat of torture or death.

With the assistance of translators, I started video chatting with people who’d escaped. They described abuses that were worse than I could have imagined. Workers who missed quotas were beaten, starved, made to hit one another. One said he’d seen people forcibly injected with methamphetamine to increase productivity. Two others said they’d seen workers murdered, with the deaths passed off as suicides. They said the bosses would buy and sell captive labourers like livestock.

Bilce Tan, an outgoing 41-year-old from Malaysia, told me he’d answered an ad on a website called JobStreet seeking someone to work in “telesales”. When he arrived in Cambodia, he was given phones loaded with fake accounts and was told he couldn’t leave. He said he was ordered to make sure his targets sent Tether.

“It’s more safe,” Tan told me. “We are afraid people will track us, for money laundering. It’s untraceable.”

Some victims I spoke with were held in a giant compound, called Chinatown, in Sihanoukville, in south-western Cambodia. From photos, it looked as large as a city’s downtown. It had dozens of tall, drab office towers, arrayed around a few courtyards and surrounded by high gates, security cameras and concertina wire. Armed guards dressed in black stood outside.

At street level were noodle shops, convenience stores, barber shops – many of them with signage in Chinese, rather than the local Khmer. Photos posted by one confused tourist showed that the shops were bisected by metal gates, preventing anyone who entered through the back door from exiting through the front.

Local news reports described a string of suspicious deaths near Chinatown – one body was found hanging at a construction site, and another corpse was dug up handcuffed from a shallow grave in a field nearby. A local vendor told a Cambodian outlet that there had been many suicides at the complex. “If an ambulance doesn’t go inside at least twice a week, it is a wonder,” he said.

The problem was pervasive enough that it could account for a serious amount of Tether transactions. I’d heard that Chinatown alone held as many as 6000 captive workers like “Vicky Ho”.

It was hard to see how this slave complex could exist without cryptocurrency. Crypto bros like to claim they were somehow helping the poor. But it seemed none of them had bothered to look into the darker consequences of a technology that allowed for anonymous, untraceable payments. In any case, there was only so much I could learn about Chinatown from afar. I had to see it for myself.

Thuy said he had escaped from crypto-gangsters in Sihanoukville after being held for four months. Zeke Faux

Before heading to Cambodia, I stopped in Ho Chi Minh City to meet up with a young Vietnamese man named Thuy who said he’d escaped from Chinatown last year after being held for months and suffering brutal abuses. A YouTuber had paid a $US5000 ransom to free him, then filmed him for a series of lurid videos with titles like “The Story of Thuy Escaping From Hell on Earth” and “The Midnight Screams”.

Thuy was 29 but looked younger, with a thin moustache and wavy bangs that covered his forehead. When he opened his mouth to light a cigarette, he revealed that he was missing at least four front teeth – knocked out, he told me, by his captors in Cambodia.

Sitting cross-legged on the green-tiled floor of his aunt’s tiny apartment, we went over satellite photos of Chinatown. Thuy showed me the gates manned by guards and the areas the captive workers couldn’t leave. He also pointed out a hotel with a gilded facade within the complex where he said the bosses were serviced by prostitutes.

He was eager to tell me more about his ordeal in Chinatown. He showed me a ragged scar behind his ear and one on his arm. And he brushed his bangs aside to point out a long lump on his forehead, from a fracture that was still healing.

Thuy told me he’d managed to arrange to be rescued only because he’d stolen a guard’s iPhone and hid it inside his rectum. When the phone died, he took it apart without using any tools, peeled out the dead battery, charged it by hot-wiring it to a fluorescent light fixture, and used it to contact the YouTuber, who then paid the ransom.

He offered to demonstrate the hot-wiring. We found a shop, where I bought a used phone for about $US50. Then we went to my hotel, where, without hesitation, Thuy took apart an LED bulb in the lamp in my room. Using a USB cable he stripped with his teeth, he proceeded to wire the bulb to the iPhone’s battery. When he reinstalled it, the phone powered on.

“I was very calm, no fear at all, because I thought that I would die either way,” Thuy told me. “If they found out I was the one stealing that phone, I would either be beaten up or killed. But if I managed to hide it, I would have a chance to live.”

I wasn’t sure how much I could trust him. He told me he’d spent two stints in prison, for assault and drug trafficking, and some of what he told me about his personal life couldn’t be verified. But he was still a valuable source of intelligence. He provided photos he’d taken inside Chinatown and the most detailed description of the compound of any of the escapees I interviewed.

I also met up with the YouTuber, a Vietnamese man who goes by Phong Bui, who corroborated much of Thuy’s story. Bui said he’d already paid ransoms to free more than 50 people. He said the work was dangerous and he’d started using intermediaries to arrange rescues after receiving threats from gangsters. He warned me not to go poking around. “Hire a taxi and sit inside to take pictures,” he told me. “Don’t get out of the car.”

I’d made plans, once I was in Cambodia, to meet up with two reporters from a publication called Voice of Democracy who’d helped expose the scam-slavery problem. If they were in the US, they’d have won journalism awards. In Cambodia, things didn’t work that way.

Before national elections scheduled for July this year, Prime Minister Hun Sen, the longtime authoritarian ruler, was jailing opposition leaders on trumped-up charges. The rampant human trafficking in the country had become an international political issue. In February, he ordered Voice of Democracy to close. He said he was angered by a reference to his son in an article, but many suspected it was because the stories about the compounds had become an embarrassment.

“You always say I use my power, so I’ll use my power for you to see,” Hun Sen said in an angry speech, ranting about the publication. “Foreigners, I remind you, do not get involved. This is Cambodia.”

Three days later, I was riding on a bus from Ho Chi Minh City, bouncing past cow pastures, shacks with rusty tin roofs and neon-coloured stucco mansions, on my way to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

I made a pit stop in Bavet, a dusty casino town in south-eastern Cambodia, just over the border from Vietnam. I’d seen news reports that said several of the casinos there were fronts for scams and forced labour. I’d even seen a video of workers fleeing from one of them in the rain, chased by guards who beat those who slipped and fell.

In a casino parking lot, a sign on a little booth caught my eye. It advertised money-transfer services in Vietnamese and Chinese. On it, I spotted a white “T” encircled in green: Tether’s logo. It didn’t prove anything, but it seemed odd that the first time I’d seen the logo outside a crypto conference was at an alleged human-trafficking hub.

In Phnom Penh, I linked up with the former Voice of Democracy reporters: Mech Dara, who was 35 and known for both fearless reporting and wearing flip-flops and jeans to government press conferences, and Danielle Keeton-Olsen, a 28-year-old American from Chicago who’d been reporting in Cambodia since college.

Dara – he just goes by Dara – rumbled up to my hotel on a janky old moped. The bike’s purple body was cracked, and its mirrors had been lost to accidents. When I asked him and Danielle if they were nervous to continue reporting after the prime minister’s edict, they told me they weren’t. “If they want to get you, they will get you, no matter what you do,” Dara said.

Danielle took me to a Chinese neighbourhood that had money-exchange shops with Tether signs, similar to the one I’d seen near the border in Bavet. Danielle was as curious as I was to see what that meant. We went to a shop across from a shiny condo tower that advertised luxury apartments in Chinese.

Parked outside were two sleek black SUVs with tinted windows: a Range Rover and a Chinese-made Zotye. On an LED sign above the shop’s three-metre-tall brass doors, there was a continuous scroll of Chinese characters. Among them we spotted a common abbreviation for Tether: USDT.

When we went in, a clerk invited us to sit at a large marble desk, on white leather chairs embroidered with the Bentley logo. I was the only customer in the office, which had polished marble floors. In niches in the wall, I saw blue-and-white porcelain vases and a statue of a stag.

I told the clerk, a friendly young Cambodian man in a football jersey, that I wanted to exchange Tether for US dollars. He told me I could have cash on the spot or money deposited in a Chinese bank account, and he asked me to wait for his boss to come back from lunch. He told me Tether was popular with Chinese businessmen. “When they want to send to overseas, it’s convenient to send USDT,” he said. “It’s anonymous, and it’s quite safe.”

As we waited, a hungover-looking Chinese man in flip-flops and pyjama pants strolled in, went behind the desk and unwrapped a black plastic bundle, revealing a lunchbox-size brick of $US100 bills wrapped in rubber bands: $US50,000 in all, the clerk later told me. He left with it stuffed under his arm.

The boss turned out to be a different surly Chinese man who arrived soon after, wearing a white T-shirt over his big belly. I’d come prepared, with a few hundred Tethers loaded into an iPhone app. The boss texted me his wallet address, a string of random numbers and letters. I pasted it into my app and zapped him 105 Tethers, five of which would cover his fee. Then, without asking for identification or even a name, he handed me a crisp $US100 bill. I’d turned my crypto into cash, with no paper trail. This was one of four currency exchanges that advertised Tether in the neighbourhood.

Before going to Chinatown, I decided to go with Danielle and Dara to visit a scam compound closer to Phnom Penh. This one was attached to a casino complex about 160 kilometres south-west of the capital on the Gulf of Thailand. It was on top of a mountain called Bokor in the middle of a national park. Last year, a Taiwanese gangster who went by the nickname “Big Fatty” had been arrested in his home country for trafficking dozens of people there.

Before we left, I spoke with Richard Jan, a veteran Taiwanese police officer who’d worked on the Big Fatty case. He said the Taiwanese government had rescued more than 400 victims of human trafficking in Cambodia last year. He’d travelled to Bokor to exfiltrate some victims himself. One of the young women his agency had rescued from the mountain had been beaten so badly she was nearly blinded. Jan told me other workers there had been killed.

“I’ve heard from people who came back alive that some victims were thrown from the rooftop, but the abuser pretended that these victims jumped to their death,” he said.

Jan told me that as well as using crypto for scamming, the Big Fatty gang demanded payment in Tether when it sold its victims into slavery. He’d been investigating human trafficking for a long time and said crypto was making his work more difficult. Before, gangsters had used bank accounts to move money. The banks would turn over customer information, which often provided leads. Tether didn’t collect information on the holders of its coins.

“It’s extremely difficult to investigate,” he said. “It doesn’t require any identification and documents at all.”

I was a bit nervous to visit a human-trafficking gang’s mountain hideout. But Danielle explained that it wasn’t as dangerous as it sounded. Bokor was a tourist attraction, where visitors went to admire the ruins of French colonial mansions and the view from the mountaintop. Someone could take selfies 100 metres from the compound and have no idea anyone was trapped inside.

Bokor Mountain was shrouded in clouds as we approached. At a gate, guards asked our destination. Then, for half an hour, we drove up a twisty road blasted through rock, passing palm trees and white-faced monkeys. We came to a giant hotel, so weathered and dirt-streaked it looked like it had survived a zombie apocalypse. Behind it, a row of about 50 empty town houses with chrome fences snaked uphill. Weeds grew between the cobblestones of unused sidewalks. At the summit stood a century-old Buddhist monastery, where three monks in orange robes swept up around golden Buddhas, listening to recorded chanting. A dog nosed through trash.

The 500-room hotel, called Thansur Sokha, was spookily silent and empty, apart from one French couple who must not have read the online reviews. Dozens of staffers watched me enter, swivelling their heads like a family of owls. There was nobody in the casino, the spa, the wine bar, the restaurants or the children’s playroom. I felt like I was visiting the amusement park for ghosts from the Hayao Miyazaki movie Spirited Away.

A publicity photograph of the Thansur Sokha Hotel near Phnom Penh in Cambodia. 

About 100 metres behind the hotel lay a cluster of nine dilapidated office buildings. This was the purported scam compound. I decided to get a closer look. To accentuate the dumb tourist get-up I’d worn for the occasion, I snapped on a fanny pack and bought a cup of freezer-burned strawberry ice-cream in the lobby.

A gate separated the public areas of the hotel-casino from the compound. As I walked up to it, I conspicuously licked ice-cream off my tiny spoon. A German shepherd emerged and barked at me furiously, straining on a heavy chain. A guard indicated to me that I couldn’t pass. Through the buildings’ windows, I could see rows of bunk beds.

While I was getting barked at, Dara chatted up another guard, who said the buildings were rented to Chinese companies and the workers inside couldn’t leave. I wanted to do something, but Danielle and Dara had told me it was useless to report forced labour to the authorities. Local potentates were generally getting paid off by the traffickers. Rather than aid escapees, Cambodian officials would detain them for immigration violations.

We packed up our stuff, got back in the van and made the slow, 120-kilometre drive to Sihanoukville. Starting about 2017, Sihanoukville was transformed by a casino-building boom fuelled by Chinese investors. Gambling is illegal in mainland China, outside state-run lotteries, but Sihanoukville is only a short flight away. And so skyscrapers and apartment blocks rose along dirt roads. Downtown filled up with domed structures flashing neon signs. Tens of thousands of Chinese workers flooded in.

By 2019, Chinese immigrants outnumbered Cambodians. There were 93 licensed casinos and hundreds more illegal ones, which by one estimate collectively generated as much as $US5 billion a year in revenue. On the gaming floors and from offices hidden away upstairs, women in ballgowns and tiaras would livestream games such as baccarat to gamblers in China. Rolls-Royce and Hongqi limousines parked outside the nicer casinos. “The typical customer at the baccarat table in the Golden Sand seemed to be a young Chinese man wearing a T-shirt and shorts, rough-looking, smoking and cradling stacks of $US100 bills in his palm, betting upwards of $US1500 per hand,” according to a 2019 account in the New York Review of Books.

With gambling came crime. Sihanoukville became infamous for prostitution, score-settling shootouts, kidnappings and money laundering. Local officials blamed Chinese gangsters. In one viral video, a man wearing a bloodied white T-shirt runs down the street, chased by two guards wielding shock batons. He falls to his knees, holding scissors to his own neck and yelling for help. In another, a loan shark’s lifeless body is pushed out of the back seat of an SUV in broad daylight.

But at the end of 2019, Cambodia’s prime minister effectively banned online gambling. That, combined with pandemic travel restrictions that began the following year, tanked Sihanoukville’s economy. About half the casinos closed and construction froze, leaving more than 1100 buildings unfinished. Most Chinese workers left. The gambling bust pushed criminal gangs to evolve. They turned the casinos into bases for online scam operations.

News reports had tied the Chinatown compound to Xu Aimin, a Chinese magnate who’d developed the property. Xu was, at least technically, an international fugitive, the subject of an Interpol “red notice”, which was supposed to alert police around the world to arrest him. In 2013, a Chinese court sentenced him in absentia to 10 years in prison for running an illegal gambling operation with more than $US1 billion in turnover.

When I asked Danielle and Dara whether Xu was on the run, they scoffed. The avenue that runs through Chinatown is named for him. And in Phnom Penh, down the street from Voice of Democracy’s shuttered office, cranes were constructing a building for his company, K.B.X. Investment Co. The 53-storey tower, if completed, would be one of the tallest buildings in the capital. (Inquiries to K.B.X. Investment went unanswered.)

When we got to Sihanoukville, I saw that the city was dotted with the concrete skeletons of hundreds of abandoned high-rise projects. Through the gaps between their floor plates, staircases to nowhere cut through the sky. The skyline looked eerie, like a city-size sculpture meant to illustrate the excesses of speculation.

A building in the Chinatown district of Sihanoukville, where many office buildings are empty.
 Zeke Faux

Chinatown was outside the city centre, near one of the beaches. It was a massive grid of bleak, grey towers, just as the human-trafficking victims had described it, except many of the towers appeared to be empty. The authorities had announced five months earlier that they’d shut down one of the area’s biggest operations. This was after stories by Danielle and Dara and other outlets had made Chinatown a symbol of the government’s apparent tolerance of human trafficking.

The first cluster of buildings in Chinatown was vacant. When we reached the second, we saw more activity. It was a complex of at least 20 shabby, two-tone grey buildings surrounding a hotel with a gold facade, on a wide avenue flanked by streetlights shaped like bouquets of flowers. Black-clad guards stood outside black-and-gold gates topped with gold spikes. Each unit in the building had been built with an airy deck. But bars had been welded on to convert the balconies into cages.

I saw a steady stream of chrome-accented Toyota Alphard vans and Range Rovers with tinted windows passing by the guards, who would check that they had proper passes. Several young women in skintight party dresses approached on scooters and were waved through, too. Had activity in the compound restarted after the unwanted attention had passed?

Inside the gate, I could see what looked like a whole neighbourhood: a barber shop, restaurants and a store with stuffed animals in the window. But when I asked if I could enter, I was turned away. One of the guards said something to the other five, and everyone cracked up.

Next to the compound was the KB Hotel – the one with the gilded facade that Thuy had shown me on the satellite images. I’d been told it housed sex workers. But now, it appeared to be open to the public. Its doors were flanked by coconut palm trees and manned by bellhops clad in black-and-gold knee pants, vests and loafers. I checked and saw that, incredibly, the hotel was listed. A superior king room went for $US98 a night, breakfast included.

Outside, I saw five men dressed in black polishing a black Maybach limousine, and a heavyset Chinese man with a red mohawk and a Gucci T-shirt pacing back and forth. Another man handed me a business card advertising prostitutes.

I decided to go inside. Danielle and Dara agreed it would appear less suspicious if I went alone. One of the bellhops gave me a tour. A highlight was a six-metre-tall golden pineapple in the lobby. The place was as empty as the hotel on Bokor Mountain.

A sweeping marble staircase led from the lobby to an elegant restaurant upstairs, where a small buffet of Chinese food was set out. The host appeared surprised at seeing a tourist.

The massive dining room could have hosted a wedding, but only a few people were there eating. Among them were the Maybach-polishers and a buff Chinese man in a T-shirt, who was watching TikTok videos on his phone at an obnoxious volume. He appeared to be their boss, because he pulled out a wad of cash from his pants pocket and peeled off bills for each of them.

Everyone seemed right at home, except for me. I took a Budweiser from a fridge on one side of the room and sipped it, trying not to look too nervous or too interested. Was this a scam compound boss sitting right next to me, eating roast duck? Because almost everyone was speaking Chinese, I couldn’t pick up any hints.

One hostess spoke English. I asked her why the hotel was so empty. She said it had opened to the public just a few months earlier. Before that, she said, it had been only for people from the surrounding buildings. I asked her why the buildings had such tight security.

Zeke Faux’s book is out now.  

“This is Chinatown, don’t you know?” she said.

I played dumb. She explained that the workers weren’t permitted to leave, trying her best to explain it in a palatable way. When I made a face, she tried to reassure me that I wasn’t being served by slaves.

“The staff here, we have our freedom,” she said.

I walked to the back of the restaurant, where large windows looked out onto an inner courtyard. The sun had set, and the lights in some of the grey office buildings made it clear they were occupied again. T-shirts and shorts were hanging to dry off some balcony cages.

I shuddered, thinking about what the people inside might be going through, and hurried back outside. Dara picked me up, and as we drove out of the complex I noticed a shuttered currency exchange. Its sign had been taken down, but the outline of four letters was still visible: USDT.

Adapted from Number Go Up: Inside Crypto’s Wild Rise and Staggering Fall, published in Australia by Hachette.

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