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UN: Human Trafficking for Cyber Scam Mills Grows in Southeast Asia

Hundreds of thousands of people have been trafficked into online criminal schemes across Southeast Asia, according to a new report from the United Nations Human Rights Office.

The report cites “credible sources” that indicate at least 120,000 people across Myanmar and 100,000 people in Cambodia are being held in situations where they are forced to carry out online scams, including romance investment scams, cryptocurrency fraud, and illegal gambling. Trafficked individuals are often migrants in vulnerable situations, the report says, and they are put to work in online scam centers.

The majority of victims are adult men, although women and adolescents have also been targeted. Trafficking cases in Southeast Asia historically involved people with limited access to education and are engaged in low-wage work, but the scam operations target different victims, many of whom are older, well-educated, coming from professional jobs, computer-literate, and multilingual, the report says. Victims are primarily sourced from across the Asia-Pacific, as well as East Africa, Egypt, Turkey, and Brazil.

“Victims face a range of serious violations and abuses, including threads to their safety and security; and many have been subjected to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, forced labor, and other human rights abuses,” the UN report noted. According to Volker Türk, UN high commissioner for human rights, this crime has two sets of victims: those who were trafficked and the people defrauded by these crime rings, many of whom lost their life savings to cyber fraud.

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed illicit activities across South Asia, especially because workplace closures put many people out of work and heightened their risk of being roped into shady job opportunities and scams. Migrant workers found themselves trapped in foreign countries without a clear path back to their homes, and they were increasingly targeted by criminal actors under the pretense of offering them real jobs. Additionally, COVID-related shutdowns worldwide sent more people online for social interaction, which made them more ready targets for fraud schemes.

“As countries in the region opened up from the pandemic response measures in the course of 2021-22, traffickers continued to exploit the economic distress that had resulted from the pandemic and the needs of many to find alternative livelihoods,” the report says.

Scamming has proven to be extremely profitable. Global scam revenue in 2021 amounted to $7.8 billion USD of stolen cryptocurrency, the UN notes. Reports also suggest that scam centers in Southeast Asia generate billions of dollars every year.

The United Nations is not the only institution shining a light on human trafficking’s role in cyber scams today. The 2023 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report (released in June 2023) noted that human traffickers pivoted during the COVID-19 pandemic to take advantage of the turmoil and confusion to exploit thousands of adults and children in cyber scam operations.

“Casinos and shell companies operating in unused hotels and other rented and bespoke commercial spaces have become hotspots for this growing criminal activity—especially within remote special economic zones, border towns, and other jurisdictionally complex geographic areas known for human rights impunity and minimal law enforcement penetration,” the report said. Traffickers recruited people from dozens of countries using fake job listings.

“Rather than fulfilling their advertised employment promises, many of these companies began forcing the recruits to run Internet scams directed at international targets and subjecting them to a wide range of abuses and violations—including withheld travel and identity documentation; imposition of arbitrary debt; restricted access to food, water, medicine, communication, and movement; and threats, beatings, and electric shocks,” the report said. “The scam operations include quota-based fraudulent sales; illegal online gambling and investment schemes; and romance scams, in which the victim is forced to enter into a fake online relationship with and extract money from unsuspecting targets. Traffickers force the victims to work up to 15 hours a day and, in some cases, ‘resell’ the victims to other scam operations or subject them to sex trafficking if they do not agree to fraudulently recruit additional members, or if the victims do not meet impossibly high revenue quotas.

“Pandemic-related travel bans have been used as excuses to keep victims captive under the guise of adherence to public health measures. There are even reports of casino-based cyber scam operators brutally murdering workers who try to escape,” the report continued.

INTERPOL has been tracking the crime phenomenon for the past several years, warning that the method of recruiting and trafficking individuals to work in cybercrime centers is spreading outside of Southeast Asia, including to West Africa.

In addition, INTERPOL found that the scams are increasing in sophistication, with the fake job ads shifting from basic requirements (“simple job in a call center,” “phone operator,” “light work, high salaries”) to more skilled profiles that appear more legitimate and might attract more tech-savvy or educated victims (“Information Technology (IT) jobs,” “Digital sales and marketing executives,” “working with cryptocurrency negotiation”). Victims trafficked into these schemes are often forced to pay off a “debt” or ransom with the scam company before they can leave, but those debts are often compounded with additional fees from the trafficker, making the amount virtually impossible to reach.

“What began as a regional crime threat has become a global human trafficking crisis,” said Jürgen Stock, INTERPOL Secretary General. “Just about anyone in the world could fall victim to either the human trafficking or the online scams carried out through these criminal hubs. Much stronger international police cooperation is needed to stop this crime trend from spreading further.”

But some cybercrime groups operate scam mills without significant scrutiny in some nations. According to a New York Times investigation, cyber scam groups and traffickers continue to thrive in Cambodia “because of powerful businessmen with close ties to senior officials in the Cambodian government, and a system of patronage that protects the mills from being investigated by the police.”

The UN report noted that many of these crime centers are located in jurisdictions where governance and the rule of law is weak.

“Corruption undermines accountability and threatens the rule of law; it often precedes the human rights violation, exacerbates its effects, and is a barrier to access to justice and remedy,” the UN said. “Reports indicate that there has been a lack of investigation into claims of collusion between the criminal actors behind these scam operations and senior government officials, politicians, local law enforcement, and influential businesspersons.”

In Myanmar, for example, cybercrime syndicates provide a major source of income for authoritarian leaders, including the ruling junta, according to the United States Institute of Peace and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“Efforts to combat this growing phenomenon have focused on supporting victims who escape, and warning potential victims before they are recruited into the scams, but relevant governments and companies have not undertaken a coordinated strategy to address the growing cyber-scam industry and its increasing connection to human trafficking,” CSIS said.

“The military coup, ongoing violence and armed conflicts in Myanmar, and the resultant breakdown in the rule of law, have provided fertile ground for an exponential rise in criminal activity,” the report said. “Following the coup, transnational organized criminal actors were able to widen their existing activities within the country by working with factions within the armed forces and various militia groups.

“Many of the scam centers in Myanmar are located in weakly regulated—and often porous—border areas which are characterized by a lack of formal law enforcement structures, oversight, and accountability. This is further exacerbated by a number of conditions commonly associated with situations of conflict in these locations. These include a distorted economy that is heavily reliant on crime, the presence of organized criminal groups, and a non-existent justice and protection system that perpetuates impunity.”