SINGAPORE – When Malaysian teenager Ah Heng (not his real name) saw a Facebook post in February advertising a job for a customer service position in Cambodia, he was intrigued.
The job promised him RM4,000 (S$1,250), which was more than what Ah Heng, 19, earned monthly as a phone shop assistant back home.
But it was the beginning of a three-month ordeal during which he would be forced to work for a transnational scam syndicate, which allegedly stole millions of dollars from victims.
Tempted by a higher salary, Ah Heng left his home town in Kepong, in Kuala Lumpur, on Feb 18 for Sihanoukville, a coastal city in Cambodia.
Ah Heng said: “I thought, with this salary, I would be able to have a better life.”
He was speaking to The Sunday Times, in a three-hour exclusive interview facilitated by the Global Anti-Scam Organisation (Gaso), a volunteer-run group that warns the public about scams and supports victims.
Gaso was one of several organisations involved in a transnational operation on April 5 led by the Royal Malaysia Police and the Cambodian National Police to secure the release of 16 Malaysians, including Ah Heng, who claimed to have been forced to become scammers.
Interpol, which was also involved in the operation, told The Sunday Times that among the 16 Malaysians, there were 15 men and one woman.
Interpol said: “The authorities in both countries believe there are more victims of the criminal group and the ongoing investigation is being supported by Interpol’s Human Trafficking and Smuggling of Migrants unit.”
Sihanoukville, where the 16 Malaysians were found, is believed to be home to multiple scam syndicates, according to reports by Al Jazeera and Nikkei Asia.
Based on photographs seen by The Sunday Times, the syndicates take over abandoned high-rise buildings, which are heavily guarded and fenced up. Within those walls, scammers of various nationalities contact hundreds of people daily via social media platforms, hoping to find scam victims.
To ensure they do not escape, those working in the syndicates are kept under tight surveillance, with CCTVs everywhere and workers’ phones checked regularly. Ah Heng said he had enough to eat but living conditions were filthy.
In Singapore, more than $1 billion has been lost by scam victims since 2016. Last year, victims in Singapore lost at least $633.3 million to scams, almost 2½ times the $268.4 million stolen by scammers in 2020.
On May 31, the Singapore Police Force said that between January and May this year, its Anti-Scam Command busted seven syndicates based in Malaysia and Taiwan, with nearly 50 syndicate members arrested.
These syndicates were responsible for more than 60 cases of job, Internet love, phishing and China official impersonation scams.