In today’s world, we routinely receive fraudulent calls and messages on our cellular devices. Many of us may have assumed these messages were automated, and the only “face” behind them was simply a bot. However, ProPublica and other sources, including Vice, have documented a new scheme in which victims are coerced into forced labor by massive international human trafficking rings. The people sending us messages now may well be trafficked and forced to scam others.
Traffickers trap people by claiming they have lucrative job opportunities that include lodging. When these people arrive, they are given phones, forced to send hundreds of fraudulent messages, and told they are not allowed to leave until they earn enough money to pay off their inflated debt, which is a price set by their captors. Some of this organized crime is funded by Chinese criminals but takes place in other, usually Southeast Asian countries, such as Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. This has become so common that the governments of China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand, and Vietnam have all issued warnings about pursuing high-paying job offers in Cambodia.
“Pig Butchering” Scams
The scammers using this forced labor often use a scam known as “pig butchering.” The scammer creates a relationship and builds trust while also gathering information about the victim’s financial situation through apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. Teams of scammers work together with elaborate scripts that use complex psychological techniques to “fatten up” their targets. After they’ve felt that trust has been established, the scammer then confides that they have an inside source that provides investment tips. They urge the victim to invest money, usually in the form of cryptocurrency, into a brokerage that is connected to the scammer’s account. Once the victim adds the money to the “investment” account, it shows up in their account balance, but, in reality, the platform is a fake and the money is gone.
While it may seem unimaginable to “fall for” these job offers or the pig butchering scams, a lot of factors go into this system’s success. These scam syndicates are elaborate and have huge financial backing behind them. Utilizing exploited labor allows them to message enough people that even if only a small fraction respond, that still leads to healthy profits. Moreover, the ones that do get ensnared usually end up giving huge sums of money, funding this billion-dollar criminal industry.
Scammers target vulnerable individuals who are lonely and willing to engage. They also use other approaches like job boards and dating sites to meet victims. The materials available to them include photos and audio recordings that appear to verify their identity. They follow intricate scripts using time-tested grooming techniques. They may switch from an investment approach to a relationship with flirty romantic overtones, or start with a romantic relationship and then engage with investment advice.
Initially, the scammer convinces the victim to put in small amounts of money into an investment account they say has made them huge profits. The scammer also urges the victim to not tell anyone about this by saying they need to keep this investment under the radar, which isolates the victim and prevents them from seeking help until it is too late. After the victim puts this money in, they see their balance go up, reflecting profits from their investment. This motivates the victim to put in larger and larger sums, at the urging of the scammer who reassures them that large investments will just lead to even larger gains in the future.
This happens until the victim has no money left. At this point, the account balance will plummet, crushing the victim, who is then told by the scammer that they just have to put in more money to get it back. The victim, terrified and desperate, puts in more money, just to see it disappear once again. This will keep occurring until the victim finally realizes that they are being scammed and ceases to put money into the account.
The trafficking victims often become ensnared when responding to job ads that are posted online offering salaries and opportunities that are very tempting to those seeking financial stability. These ads can look legitimate and even can be vetted by job-posting Web sites. Many of these job-seekers are from China, but there are some from Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. They will be interviewed and then flown out to the country in which the job was offered, often Cambodia. Once they land, they are driven to the compound where their passport is confiscated.
They are then forced to learn how to scam, memorizing scripts, familiarizing themselves with technology, and finding victims. If they refuse, they are threatened with physical punishment and even death. The complexes are guarded to prevent people from leaving, and it is difficult to get in touch with the outside world, including family or authorities that could help these victims. Their lives are strictly regimented, and they are forced to perpetrate scams.
These scams and the human trafficking rings behind them are forming a humanitarian crisis, according to Jacob Sims, Cambodia director for International Justice Mission, an international nongovernmental organization that works with victims of human trafficking and forced labor. The Global Anti-Scam Organization estimates that a victim loses an average of $173,000, and they’ve recorded a total loss of more than $285 million across 1,652 victims globally. These crimes have severe psychological impacts on the victims. The pig butcher is a long con where the scammers may take weeks before even mentioning an investment and developing a sense of intimacy. In addition, both groups of victims are at high risk for emotional distress including feelings of shame, elements of trauma, an inability to trust others, and depression.
This post was a collaboration between myself and Scripps Lab manager Sagrika Jawadi, B.A.