Online fraud: how Chinese nationals forced to run internet scams in Cambodia earn millions for their captors, sometimes paying with their lives | #datingscams | #russianliovescams | #lovescams

Upon arrival at the purported destination, in the mountainous Guangxi region, the two were joined by four other women, unaware they were being trafficked to a country they had never heard of. Their handlers casually told them to keep on walking over the jagged terrain.

“While we were climbing the mountain I already started regretting coming with them,” Guo says. Trekking through the night, the group crossed the border into Vietnam, where they were later bused across the peninsula to the southwestern port city of Sihanoukville, in Cambodia.

Once there, imprisoned in a casino complex, Guo was not allowed to leave the building, and was forced to perpetuate online scams targeting Chinese nationals, amid insults and threats from her captors. On several occasions, she saw a supervisor handcuff and beat another woman who performed poorly at work. “I was scared the same thing would happen to me the next second,” she says.

Guo Ying at a safe house in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Cindy Liu

So Guo kept her head down, doing what she was told. The scam was simple: using Douyin – the Chinese version of TikTok – to convince internet users they could get paid for liking content on the social networking platform. All users had to do was wire money to the scammers’ account before cashing in on their returns. Initially the users were allowed to withdraw their modest profits, but they were soon urged to pay more.

“You tell users to pay 100 yuan [US$15.70] upfront,” she explains, “then ask them to pay more, like 500 yuan, but they [the company] wouldn’t return that.”

Guo’s Chinese captors in Cambodia demanded that she pay US$15,000 to walk free, but the teen didn’t have that kind of money. And although some months she earned US$1,000, toiling around the clock on the Douyin scams – triple what she made waitressing at a hotpot restaurant back home – management regularly took out chunks of her salary for behaviour they deemed inappropriate.

“One time I spoke in dialect to someone sitting next to me and they said, ‘Why are you disturbing the workplace?’, and took US$100 from my salary,” she says.

All the while, Guo was planning her escape. Then came November and a supervisor threatened to sell her to another scamming operation because she had failed to meet her output targets. She broke down.

“I took pills with the intention to kill myself,” the teen says of the 40 sleeping tablets she swallowed. “I just wanted to find a peaceful place.”

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Guo woke up the following day in a Sihanoukville hospital. “Maybe because I was pretty obedient, when I went to the hospital they didn’t send anyone to monitor me. They didn’t think I’d run,” she says. But her captors were wrong. Guo immediately contacted a Chinese volunteer group helping trafficking victims and was transported to a safe house in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

She is far from alone. Thousands of Chinese nationals, some as young as 15, are estimated to have fallen prey to transnational crime groups trafficking people from China to Cambodia, although Cambodian police have previously contested similar estimates. Many toil in slave-like conditions, serving online gambling and scamming companies, clicking away for up to 14 hours a day in rooms filled with rows of computers, with no days off, guards watching and trapped in debt bondage.

Those like Guo, who manage to flee, have been stranded in Phnom Penh, where they feel at a safe enough distance from the criminals’ reach, waiting for an affordable flight home. China’s strict zero-Covid entry restrictions have led to regular cancellations and soaring ticket prices. In December, a one-way ticket to Chengdu, the only remaining air route to China, cost more than US$9,000, a sharp rise from a few hundred dollars before the pandemic.

A lot of people are just treated like a piece of flesh. After they are beaten the captors ask for ransom from their families and then they are sold on to the next company

Chen Baorong, a Chinese businessman helping trafficking victims

Sihanoukville was already a strategic location for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, home as it is to Cambodia’s only deep-water port.

“Sihanoukville has almost become a Chinese-exclusive special economic zone, so to speak,” says Pech Pisey, executive director of the NGO Transparency International in Cambodia. “It emerges into a safe haven for many shadowy business activities as well. To understand Sihanoukville’s complexity, we need to look at the relationship between China and Cambodia beyond economic reasons.”

The Golden Lions Roundabout in Sihanoukville. Photo: Cindy Liu

Lax laws in Cambodia lured gamblers and investors, but also organised crime. Sihanoukville became infamous for shoot-outs, kidnappings and money laundering. The city’s ex-governor, Yun Min, in 2018 blamed the “Chinese mafia” for the city’s rising crime rate.

They “disguise themselves to commit various crimes and kidnap Chinese investors” and were “causing insecurity in the province”, he was reported as saying by the Reuters news agency.

Thereafter, some casinos and hotels appear to have become fronts for cyber-slavery operations and have been involved in online scams. The schemes described by those who perpetuated them include investments in dubious stocks, cryptocurrency, lotteries and gambling scams.

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While local police have raided a number of casinos and gated compounds in recent months, critics say rampant corruption and weak rule of law mean the scamming industry has operated largely unhindered.

“The criminal gangs are very smart and know how to connect with and work around the system,” says Transparency International’s Pech Pisey. “It is believed that dodgy companies cannot operate without some sort of protection offered by those in positions of power although it is hard to find any evidence of that collusion.”

His organisation has ranked Cambodia 157 on its 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index of 180 countries and territories worldwide, the lowest among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states.

In November 2021, United States authorities cautioned about investing in the Southeast Asian country due to “the deteriorating human rights situation in Cambodia, combined with increased and widespread corruption in the financial, real estate, casinos, and infrastructure development sectors”.

A building in Sihanoukville known to house online gambling and scamming operations. Photo: Cindy Liu

Sihanoukville provincial authorities pledged to take action against hotels and casinos that use forced labour in September 2021. Yet they seemed unconcerned with companies practising debt bondage, which is illegal under Cambodian law and is the most prevalent form of modern slavery, according to the United Nations.

While not defined by international law, contemporary slavery encompasses human trafficking, forced labour and debt bondage. The UN describes it as “situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power”.

Provincial governor Kouch Chamroeun pointed out in December 2021 that foreign workers have to spend thousands of dollars to get to Cambodia, which they need to borrow from their employers.

“After the provincial administration investigated these cases, we saw that there was no heavy abuse of their rights as alleged of people being detained to pay off debts because they are working to settle their debt with the company,” he was reported as saying by the Khmer Times.

Observers say the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the human trafficking and cyber-slavery problems. When Cambodia closed its borders in March 2020, workers became scarce and scamming rings increasingly cruel, according to Chen Baorong, a Chinese businessman helping trafficking victims.

“A lot of people are just treated like a piece of flesh,” says Chen. “After they are beaten the captors ask for ransom from their families and then they are sold on to the next company.”

The price for freedom has gone up, too. Before the pandemic, relatives, who are often contacted by the captors, Chen says, paid on average US$3,000; today they are asked for at least US$10,000.

It was like mental torture. There is a lot of invisible mental pressure of having to scam other people but also tricking yourself into believing that what you are doing is not wrong

Xu Mingjian, who was forced into Cambodia’s online scamming business

A long-time resident of Cambodia, Chen is part of a Chinese volunteer team that has made a name for itself among those trapped in online gambling and scamming operations. The lanky chain-smoker says he has lost 10kg (22lb) due to stress since he became involved in the volunteer group last year. He says he receives up to a dozen messages from duped compatriots daily and has helped free more than 200 individuals working in conditions of modern-day slavery.

“I usually smoke two packs a day, even at night. At 1am I have to force myself to go to sleep. If I can’t sleep then I take medication,” Chen says. “I had depression for a while after learning about these stories. I felt a burden in my heart.”

The Chinese victims he has helped were trafficked to Cambodia, overland, via Vietnam; or by sea, and were either undocumented or had their passports confiscated by the traffickers, he says. Nationals of other countries, including the Philippines, Bangladesh and Uganda, are also reported to have been duped into working for Chinese-run scamming groups after losing Cambodia-based jobs due to the pandemic. Most were trapped in hotels, casinos and compounds around the country.

Roads under construction in Sihanoukville. Photo: Cindy Liu
One of the most prevalent activities is the romance scam known as shazhupan, or “pig butchering”. Lydia Chng, a Chinese-Malaysian resident of Singapore, felt first-hand the devastating impact of the scheme. The surgical nurse became entangled in a cryptocurrency investment ploy after entering into an online relation­ship with a Shanghainese interior designer living in Vancouver, Canada. Or so she thought.

The scammer, Li Beizhi, first contacted Chng on Instagram in June 2021 using the name Xiao Bei. His social media posts feature a dashing Asian man fine dining and supposedly visiting far-flung places, including Poland. Though she has never seen him in person, they started “dating” one month later and Li almost immediately insisted Chng call him her “husband”.

“He wouldn’t want a video call,” she says, laughing nervously. “[He said he] wanted to keep it a surprise until we meet up.”

Then came the financial proposal. The man boasted about passive income from cryptocurrency investments on a platform called TMX, which appeared deactivated in December 2021. “He was saying, ‘Why don’t you start to invest for a better future?’” Chng recounts.

She initially put in a few hundred dollars and, having made a sizeable return in the first month, thought, “These guys can be trusted because I can withdraw some amount.”

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Encouraged by the initial results, Chng mortgaged her house in Malaysia, borrowed from money lenders, banks, family and friends, and poured close to US$175,000 into the cryptocurrency scheme. Around the same time, her unsuspecting father shared an article about a “pig butchering” scamming ring.

“So I just happened to open and read it,” says Chng. “I was shocked because the same picture, I mean, the link actually is the same person – the same photo of this person that I’m talking to.”

She tried withdrawing the money but neither the platform nor customer support would allow it. Family and friends have become her lifeline since she filed for bankruptcy in October. “They buy me groceries online and send them to me in Singapore because I only have like S$50 [US$37] to spend,” she says tearfully.

As of December 2021, the Global Anti-Scam Organisation says it has connected with over 900 victims of the con from 2020-21, with individuals swindled out of a combined total of more than US$144 million. The advocacy group, which is led by victims of scams, came to the rescue and helped expose Chng’s scammer.

Using IP-tracking software, Chng was able to establish that her purported boyfriend was in Cambodia, not Canada, as he originally claimed.

“I don’t want revenge,” she says. “I just want to try to track down the boss. Because some victims, I mean, some scammers, I do understand that they’re being forced, they’re being betrayed.”

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Those who are forced – some supposedly work for the scamming companies voluntarily – are often pushed to the brink. Phnom Penh safe houses supported by the Chinese volunteers are full of daring escape stories.

It was 3.28am when Xu Mingjian jumped from the second floor of the Sihanoukville building where he had been imprisoned for three months, he says, and the soft-spoken, baby-faced 28-year-old from Guizhou province landed on his tailbone. Splayed on the ground, thinking he was about to die, thousands of miles from home, the father of two called his wife to tell her he had just escaped from “hell on Earth”.

“I saw people get dragged out from my work area and beaten,” he recounts from a Phnom Penh safe house, where he has spent several months after leaving the hospital where he had been recovering from the fall. “I heard their screams.”

Xu wears a back brace and has a slight limp after jumping from the building where he was imprisoned. Photo: Cindy Liu

In March 2021, an old friend sent Xu a message on social media, promising that if Xu joined him in Cambodia, he could make US$3,000 a month for “typing on a computer”. Then making a living as a recycler, Xu was obviously tempted, thinking he could finally pay off a US$15,000 debt.

Instead, he says, he arrived in Sihanoukville only to be kept under lock and key, told he must repay his captors US$10,000 for trafficking him into the country, and was forced to scam Chinese nationals online. “I just wanted to strike gold in a foreign country,” says Xu, “but I didn’t know I would almost lose my life here.”

He stayed in one of two buildings – part of a gated compound – housing more than 100 people but showing few signs of life from the outside. “Unless you were severely sick you had to stay inside,” he says. “Someone from the company was always watching you.”

Xu slept in a dorm with people who he says were violent or suffered from mental illness. During the day, he worked for 12 hours in a medium-sized room with up to a dozen other Chinese nationals, everyone on their computers, guards looking over their shoulders. No breaks, no holidays.

“It was like mental torture,” Xu says. “There is a lot of invisible mental pressure of having to scam other people but also tricking yourself into believing that what you are doing is not wrong.”

Xu at a safe house in Phnom Penh. Photo: Cindy Liu

During a safe-house visit, one day in November 2021, Chen says he was contacted by two Chinese men who had just escaped from a Sihanoukville company through their windows, hurting themselves on impact with the ground. In a video played on one of Chen’s two phones, a young man is seen crouching in tall grass near the compound where he was allegedly imprisoned, describing his whereabouts to help the search party find him.

Cooperating with local and Chinese authorities, the volunteers seem to be doing the lion’s share of the work. They follow leads, investigate, liaise with and lobby Cambodian law enforcement to extract enslaved individuals, and support many of the trafficked men and women by providing board and accommodation.

Because of the scale of the problem and their limited resources, the group is unable to help everyone, leaving many who ask to be rescued to their own devices.

Some have resorted to contacting high-profile figures via social media, including Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, and were extracted from scamming operations as a result.

But sometimes help comes too late or not at all. On average, a dozen people each month have been injured or have lost their lives to the scamming companies since the start of the pandemic, says Chen, who has been helping ship the remains of his compatriots to China.

Sometimes the cause is a botched escape attempt or foul play by the company, he says, on other occasions, it’s a suicide. “They would rather die than do scams.”

Guo at a safe house in Phnom Penh. Photo: Cindy Liu

The Chinese embassy in Cambodia did not respond to requests for comment on the death toll. Cambodian National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun said 118 Chinese nationals died in the country last year but denied that any of the deaths were linked to scamming operations.

As for what steps law enforcement is taking to crack down on cyber slavery, Chhay Kim Khoeun says, “I keep my rights to not answer it and just want to emphasise that police has its plan and technical expert regarding to the issue.”

Kheang Phearum, spokesman for the Sihanoukville provincial administration, says the authorities have launched a designated complaints hotline and “organised a group of forces to intervene to release the victims and find the culprits to be punished”.

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Six people were arrested on charges of illegal detainment and five for extortion in 2021, Kheang said in a Telegram message.

After his fall, Xu spent four weeks bedridden and several months in a wheelchair. Today, he wears a back brace and has a slight limp. These days he prefers to stay indoors, resting and video calling his family back in China.

Though seeing his loved ones in person seems unlikely in the near future due to the prohibitively expensive flights and China’s entry restrictions, he is not one to complain.

“Before all this happened I used to wonder about the lowest point in one’s life,” Xu says. “Now that I have experienced it, my biggest realisation is that as long as one is alive, there is hope.”

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