Expanding Cyber Scam Hubs Target Southeast Asia’s Vulnerable Workers

Rising Tide of Industrial-Scale Cyber Scam Hubs Exploit Southeast Asia's Vulnerable Workers
Thai and Burmese workers sit behind bars inside a cell at the compound of a fishing company in Benjina, Indonesia. (Photo: AP)

Industrial-scale cyber scam hubs are increasing across Southeast Asia, with workers from various countries being tricked into forced labor, and working in “prison-like” conditions.

In December 2022, the Philippines started a probe into scam centers and human trafficking cases in Southeast Asia. In May 2023 alone, authorities from the Philippines law enforcement agencies freed over 1,000 workers in a scam hub located just 90 km north of Manila. 

However, this is not a one-off instance. Many such illicit businesses are becoming more prominent, especially in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar and they use the same tactic to lure their victims.

This involves marketing high-paying jobs for minimal work to unassuming job seekers on social media platforms. But when victims reach Bangkok, the preferred entry point for mainland Southeast Asia, moved across land borders by so-called recruiters to be dropped into fortified compounds with armed guards. 

Soon enough, their passports are confiscated and they are told to learn the sales routine for particular cyber scams. The new recruits are forced to work 14 hours per day or more, to win over Americans, Australians, or Europeans over phone calls, only to siphon off their money.

If the trafficked victims fail to meet quotas, they are subjected to violent punishment that has often resulted in severe injuries. Those who have been rescued or escaped have reported harrowing stories of beatings, electric shocks, water torture, sexual exploitation, starvation, and confinement to windowless rooms.

According to East Asia Forum, the combination of cyber scamming and trafficking is largely organized by Chinese gangsters who control gambling across the region. Covid-19 travel restrictions limited flow into casinos, creating a new market for trafficking and scamming hubs.

In recent years, such premises have propped up along the Mekong River, often located in disused casinos and hotels in special economic zones. The absence of law-compliant officials also allowed the industry to flourish, which is why the countries where these operations have been taking place have found themselves in the bottom rungs of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index for 2022

Out of 180 countries, the Philippines is placed 116, Laos 126, Cambodia 150, and Myanmar 157.

As knowledge of the cyber scam operations become more mainstream, largely through the testimonies of rescued workers, action by law-enforcement agencies in concerned countries has started taking place. 

However, it was slow coming. Such as when Cambodian police turned a blind eye while a government minister characterized the rescue of cyber slaves as settling a labor dispute, or when a senior Thai police officer spoke of corruption and resistance by Cambodian officials, which directly affected a joint operation to release some of the suspected 3,000 Thai citizens who were victims of human trafficking in Cambodia.

Non-government organizations estimate the number of people trafficked into cyber scam schemes to be generally in the tens of thousands. The Humanity Research Consultancy has calculated the figure to be about 25,000 although others claim that the number may be up to 100,000.

ASEAN leaders have also unanimously approved a pledge to promote cooperation and coordination to suppress trafficking in persons caused by the abuse of technology, by enhancing cooperation between law enforcement officers of all member countries in terms of sharing and exchanging information, gathering evidence, and conducting investigations.

Lao officials managed to rescue 1,255 workers, including 493 women, who were at risk of commercial sexual exploitation and were looked after by law enforcement in August 2022.