When the advert popped up on Ly Thi Lan’s* Facebook feed, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. An employer in Cambodia was looking for new staff, the only requirement was computer skills, and the salary was generous, especially compared with her factory job in her home country, Vietnam. She would be able to save money, and pay for health treatment she needed. Her husband decided to go as well. “I just wanted to go there to have a better job, earn money to pay for a better life,” she says.
But when she arrived, she found it wasn’t a typical admin job. Her role was to scour the internet for victims she could trick into investing in an online scam. If she refused to do the work, she was told that she would be taken to the eighth floor of the building compound, beaten or electrocuted, she says. Lan was later told by other workers she had been sold to a criminal gang, and that they were now owned by their company. She had no idea how or when this happened, only that she couldn’t return home without paying a huge ransom.
Lan is just one of thousands of estimated victims who have been trapped in such work in Cambodia, where scam operations proliferated during the pandemic. The issue became so acute that, in August, the US downgraded Cambodia to the worst level possible in its Trafficking In Persons annual report.
Prof Vitit Muntarbhorn, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, who visited Sihanoukville, a city at the centre of such operations, likened conditions in compounds to a “living hell” in his end of mission statement.
“We’re talking about at least thousands of cases, cumulatively, and less conservative figures could estimate even higher figures,” Vitit said of the scale of the trafficking.
Cambodia has over recent weeks begun cracking down on such establishments, raiding more than 10 condos and hotels in the capital, Phnom Penh, that were allegedly running illegal online activities, according to VOD English, which has covered the issue. It also reported that almost 1,500 foreign nationals were released during three recent raids in Sihanoukville.
Yet observers say such actions are unlikely to eradicate the problem, and that operations will probably move elsewhere. “It’s a global issue, they’re going to go to Myanmar, they’re going to go to other jurisdictions,” said Jason Tower, Myanmar country director for the United States Institute of Peace. Such criminal activities are already thriving in Myanmar, he added, which is in the midst of a deep political crisis prompted by the 2021 military coup, and where there is no effective law enforcement.
Fattening the pig
Cambodia’s Sihanoukville was once a sleepy seaside town, but over recent years it has been transformed by Chinese investment into an enclave of casinos and luxury hotels. However, during the pandemic, as tourism was halted, their business and supply of labour from China dried up.
Buildings were adapted for new criminal enterprises, said Surachate Hakparn, assistant national police chief of Royal Thai Police. “Usually they have taken the [hotel] name plate out and built a high wall around it, and on top of the wall there is the spiked fence. Once you are in you can’t go out without permission,” he said.
Thai police managed to repatriate about 1,300 Thais between last November and March.
Surachate travelled to Sihanoukville in June aiming to rescue more Thai citizens but was hindered by a lack of cooperation from Cambodian authorities. If policing operations are to work, he added, “all police, in every country, [need to be] on the same team”.
In recent comments, the prime minister, Hun Sen, appeared to take a tougher stance, saying: “Do not let Cambodia become a haven of crime, a place of money laundering, a place of human trafficking.”
Whether the Cambodian authorities will truly change their approach remains to be seen, Surachate said.
The US TIP report cited “endemic corruption” as a barrier to law enforcement. Officials reportedly complicit in various forms of trafficking were not being investigated, it said.
Cambodian officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Pham Nguyen Anh Tuan was stuck in the same compound as Lan, where they were forced to carry out romance-style scams centred around a fake online shop. “We called it ‘selling emotions’,” he says. He would trawl Facebook Dating for targets. “I’d pretend to be a woman to flirt with guys. After flirting back and forth to create trust in them, I lured them into buying stuff, like a pyramid scheme. The deeper they get sucked in, the worse it’d be for them.”
Targets would be told to buy a product, and that they would be refunded with an extra 10% of the price. Initially, for cheaper orders, the scammers would give the promised refund and people would be allowed to keep the money. “When greed and trust in each other grew, they would fall into the trap, they’d buy more stuff at a higher price, we’d ‘owe’ them, and then we’d stop paying them back.”
It’s a strategy known as pig butchering – building trust and fattening the target up, before enacting the scam.
The only way to leave the compound was by paying a huge ransom fee, which neither Tuan nor Lan could afford.
“I didn’t want to do it, I felt so, so guilty. I did not want to do it,” says Lan of the scam work. “But if I didn’t make money for the company, the company would beat me, or send me to the eighth floor to electrocute me. Some guys in the company have been electrocuted. We saw it and got really scared.”
Lan would work between 14 and 16 hours a day, with only short toilet breaks allowed. Anyone who spent more than 10 minutes in the bathroom was told their pay would be docked. Lunch and dinner were brought to the table where staff worked.
She had been promised a salary of US$800-900. The first month she received only $200; by the second and third month she received nothing.
She was told she must earn 300 million dong ($12,653) for the company each month, and that every five days she must attract two new “customers” to be tricked into sending money. If she didn’t meet her targets her pay would be deducted and the bosses, who were Chinese, threatened her with violence.
The scheme at Lan and Tuan’s compound was designed to trick Vietnamese victims, but similar operations have been targeted at people across the world, from China to the US and Europe.
Jan Santiago, deputy director of the Global Anti-Scam Organization, an initiative created by victims of such scams, says it receives dozens of new cases each week. Most are based in the US, but there are many others across Asia. “I’d say that the average loss from victims in our group is about $100,000.” Victims are often highly successful professionals: accountants, lawyers and bankers. Many are targeted on dating sites.
“The hallmark of this kind of scam is the initial scammer never really asks for money directly,” says Santiago. Instead, they’re nudging their target to invest on a third party platform. “They really make good use of the gambling psychology and loss aversion of people,” he said. “That’s where the losses really double.”
The opacity of cryptocurrency, combined with a lack of resources among the authorities, means agencies are rarely able to recover money.
Lan managed to escape in August, when her colleagues decided they would try to break free. Their compound was in Koh Thom, Kandal province, on the border, but they feared that if they were sold to another gang, they might be moved further away to Sihanoukville, where escaping would be impossible. Tuan says he had already been sold multiple times between criminal gangs. Often, if someone is unable to meet the targets set by the bosses, they will be sold on to another operation.
Together, dozens of colleagues enacted a plan to escape. Some male staff fired molotov cocktails to startle their work compound’s security officers, then dozens raced from the building. Men in dark uniforms chased frantically after them, waving sticks. Lan, Tuan and others jumped into the water of the Binh Di river along the Cambodia-Vietnam border and swam for their lives, a moment that was captured on video and has since been shared widely online.
The water is 70 metres at its most narrow point, and Lan can barely swim. “When I was about to sink, my husband grabbed my arm to swim and took me further away from the bank.” Eventually, someone from the Vietnamese side raced over with a motorboat to rescue them.
A 16-year-old boy did not make it, and drowned along the way. Another man, who couldn’t swim, was caught, beaten and dragged backwards, says Lan, who is now home. “The guard came down to pull him up, then hit him on the head and in the back or stomach or something with an iron stick. I saw it with my own eyes. I was terrified,” she recalls. The image of him being beaten continued to haunt her, even after her return to Vietnam.
The man was eventually rescued, she heard.
Those who do manage to return home can face stigma and legal charges. In Thailand, the majority of people who have returned from such compounds, about 70%, have been prosecuted, according to Surachate.
Jacob Sims, director of International Justice Mission Cambodia, said countries need to develop strong systems to identify victims, and make sure they are supported. “Some scammers are there generally under their own volition as members of large organised crime networks. Others are experiencing confinement and extreme abuse. Many fall somewhere in the middle. Forced criminality is a complex issue,” he said.
It’s unclear how many more people are yet to return from Cambodia. Thailand believes about 3,000 more of its citizens remain.
Adverts offering suspicious looking admin jobs in Cambodia, meanwhile, continue to appear online.
“If someone approaches me now and says there’s a light job with good pay, I’ll put that person to the front page of any newspaper, report them. Because there’s no such thing as light job easy money,” Lan says. “I’ve been through it myself.”
* Names have been changed