THEY arrive at an exotic, foreign land with hope for a new life or new love.
But what they get is despair, and some even death, as they are locked up, tortured and forced into a life of cybercrime.
This is what happened to an estimated 10,000 to 100,000 predominantly young men and women who have been conned and held captive in the “scam parks” of South-East Asia, where they are forced to commit online scams and fraud, says the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC).
Calling it a “scamdemic”, UNDOC highlights in its report, Casinos, cyber fraud, and trafficking in persons for forced criminality in South-East Asia, that the huge scamming “industry” has swept across the region in the wake of Covid-19.
According to the report which was released in September, the scam parks – also known as fraud factories – are run by transnational organised crime syndicates taking advantage of the existing casino and Special Economic Zone (SEZ) infrastructure in the Golden Triangle area, namely in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand.
These syndicates are believed to be gangs from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, who due to the pandemic, were forced to close down or move their illicit operations, especially illegal casinos, to less regulated spaces such as conflict-affected border areas and the SEZ, as well as to the increasingly lucrative online space.
Covid-19 had also created the perfect conditions for this scamdemic to flourish with its “toxic combination” of unemployment, lockdown isolation, and increased social media use, says UNDOC.
With millions of migrant and expatriate workers stranded during the Covid-19 lockdowns, while thousands of millions others were confined at home, the pool of easy targets for job scams and other online fraud schemes only grew. Then as the region reopened in 2021, traffickers took advantage of those who had lost their jobs because of the pandemic and were desperate for work.
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UNDOC says these organised crime groups have developed and implemented a sophisticated plan to scam people, utilising the latest artificial intelligence (AI) tools, including face swapping and voice replication to bypass banking security systems.
The scam park trafficking crime is also growing into a global problem as victims come not only from across the Asean region, East Asia and South Asia, but also further afield from Africa and Latin America.
The trafficked victims in turn are forced to scam thousand worldwide, very often their own countrymen. It is estimated that these online scams have defrauded thousands of scam victims worldwide of US$169,000 (RM789,801), on average, per person.
According to another UN agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), these scam parks are also seeing a new type of victims.
An OHCHR report released in August says that while trafficking cases in South-East Asia used to involve mostly victims who had lower educational qualifications and worked in low-wage jobs, the latest findings show the trend now includes those who are well-educated – many previously held professional jobs and have graduate or postgraduate degrees – IT-savvy and multilingual, fluent especially in English. (This is so they can trick scam victims more effectively, the report says.)
Many ensnared are also from supposedly more developed nations in the region such as Singapore and Taiwan.
OHCHR adds that while most of the trafficking victims are men, there are also women and young persons.
Luring them with the promise of stable jobs overseas, the traffickers arrange for unknowing victims to travel to countries like Thailand and Myanmar, before smuggling them across the borders to Laos and Cambodia.
They are then taken to scam parks, which are secure buildings tailored to confine victims and operate these online scams, including large casinos and hotel complexes.
Once inside the scam parks, some of which are fenced with barbed wire, the victims’ passports are confiscated, and they are forced to work as scammers for up to 15 hours or more a day.
Those who try to escape are often beaten before being forced back to work.
There have been reports of trafficking victims being sold and moved from one scam park to another.
While thousands of victims have escaped, been rescued, and returned to their home country, say the UN agencies, overall, the problem is not abating, with new scam compounds being built and existing scam compounds expanding in size and geographical scope.