Troy: They have a quota of a certain amount of money that they have to steal or obtain. And oftentimes those quotas are very, very high, like nearly impossible. And so they get either beaten, shocked with these uh electric shock sticks or cattle prods. If it’s really bad they may get sold to another compound or even… much worse.
Bob: Much worse meaning what?
Troy: They could have their organs harvested.
Bob: Oh my God.
Let me preface this by saying I don’t recommend you do this– but when I get an obvious scam phone call nowadays, I’ll often try to engage the caller in conversation. It’s part of my job, I think. It’s not that I believe I’m going to write a story about this caller, but I do like to stick my nose into the middle of things I write about, and do whatever I can to make sure I have a good feel for the topic.
I spend a good part of my week interviewing victims who’ve been manipulated into sending money to a criminal. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing about the people who are on the other end of the line committing these thefts. If you’ve had even a brief encounter with them, you have probably noticed how relentless they are, as if their life depends on keeping you on the line. Well, sometimes, it does.
At first blush, it might seem really hard to feel sympathy for these callers. Some don’t make it very easy. Two chats ago, when I “broke script” and said, “Look I’m not sending you any money. Why do you do this? You know you are hurting real human beings, right?” he responded by telling me he hated America and was going to come to America and hurt me. I then asked why he hated America; we went back and forth on that for a few moments until he hung up. But this week when I tried the same tactic, the man’s tone of voice changed immediately and he said, “I am hopeless. There are no jobs. I am very sad.” I said I was sorry but still encouraged him to stop doing this “job,” and he disconnected.
I have no claim to know if this man was still trying to manipulate me — just playing a different role which has worked for him to close other sales. But I do know that a sizable portion of people placing scam phone calls are being compelled to do so against their will. I wrote recently about a UN report suggesting that hundreds of thousands of human trafficking victims are being held at scam compounds in Southeast Asia against their will, forced to steal from victims on the other side of the world — or else face painful punishment.
This story has haunted me. So this week we released a new episode of The Perfect Scam which tells the story of “Didi,” one such victim of trafficking — and his 4-month quest to escape. In this episode, you’ll hear from Zhaoyin Feng, who recently made a BBC Documentary about DiDi. And you’ll also hear from a non-profit named, GASO — the Global Anti-Scam Organization — which works to get trafficking victims released. You can listen to the episode by clicking play below, or by clicking this link, or by following The Perfect Scam wherever you listen to podcasts. Below, you’ll find a partial transcript of the episode if you prefer to read. The full transcript is available here.
[00:07:28] Zhaoyin Feng: We established contact with DD when he was still trapped inside a compound in Cambodia, and he actually sent us video documentaries of his everyday life from his dorm bathroom because that’s the only secure place where he could lock the door. And in one of his video diaries, he was whispering, because he was afraid that his boss will listen in, and he was telling us the boss has told him if he tried to escape, they would kill him.
[00:08:01] Bob: And after weeks of communicating with DD, it becomes clear that he’s desperate to tell the world what’s really going on.
[00:08:09] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah, he firmly believed that he shouldn’t be locked up in such a place and scamming and hurting people online. So he was trying very hard to send a message out. So DD got in touch with them and had a long conversation with them, almost got in touch with them every day, was messaging them every day.
[00:08:29] Bob: And it seems, it even it makes me nervous hearing you talk about what would have happened to him if they discovered just that he was sending videos to GASO, right, he would have gotten in a lot of trouble.
[00:08:40] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah, indeed. That’s why when we got into contact with DD, we quickly make sure he understands that his personal safety is the toppest priority, is the most important thing. He shouldn’t do anything that may jeopardize his safety. And we found out that the bathroom would be a perfect place to film the video diaries because he could lock the door and no one else would be able to come in. He also suggest that he would whisper in the videos which we think is a brilliant idea, because then others outside the door would not be able to listen in. So it was an incredibly tense situation.
[00:09:22] DD whispering: (inaudible)
[00:09:30] Bob: He’s whispering, “They force me to work over 12 hours a day. I’m exhausted when I get back to the dormitory.” When he can, DD describes some horrific things happening in the compound.
[00:09:43] Zhaoyin Feng: He told us he wasn’t beaten that much in the compound, but he definitely witnessed a lot of violence that were used on his colleagues, and a lot of brain washing by the bosses as well. On every morning before they started to work, they had to chant slogans and they had to even sing songs together to create a team spirit, so they feel uh motivated to scam people again. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s the life scammers had to go through in the compound.
[00:10:18] Bob: From the beginning, the folks at GASO get to work trying to help DD escape from the compound, but it’s not a simple matter of calling the local authorities.
[00:10:29] Zhaoyin Feng: GASO was trying to work with local volunteer to find a plan to get him out. But the planning took a long time because there were a lot of elements to consider. They also didn’t want to make DD suffer, because if something didn’t go right, maybe DD’s boss could have learned about the plans before he managed to leave and that will result in more harm for DD. So it took a long time to plan, so DD was impatient.
[00:11:03] Bob: Leslie says that’s pretty typical for GASO escapes. They can take a long time.
[00:11:09] Leslie: It’s extremely frustrating for us. It sounds, it sounds really grand that we’re doing rescue operations, but in reality, how we help these people is very limited. Our resources are limited, we are an organ–, volunteer-based organization. And most of these areas are too dangerous for, for anyone to go into to be on the ground, and scam compounds aren’t exactly places that you can just waltz into and say, “Can you give me this person? They want to leave.” So the logistics of how we can get someone out is, is very difficult, and it, it can be very grueling. There are times when we just can’t help a person that’s contacting us. It depends on their nationality. It depends on the government where they’re from and how willing they are to cooperate with us in terms of assisting us. Sometimes it depends on the, the compound and how willing, how willing they are to cooperate with us and how willing they are to let someone go. Sometimes it has to do with ransom. They want money in exchange for a person, but most of these people, the reason they’re there is because they don’t have money. So are they going to be able, able to pay that ransom? Most likely not. So these are the logistics of the difficulties that we go through on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s political, a lot of times it’s financial. So yeah, it’s, it’s not easy to get anyone out from a compound.
[00:12:47] Bob: As the weeks go by, the GASO team and the BBC reporter get to know DD pretty well from these hushed bathroom recordings. Eventually, Zhaoyin is even able to travel to the neighborhood where DD is being held against his will to see the scam compound called Wan Lo for herself.
[00:13:09] (film clip): The road takes us off the coast away from the city center to an enclosed set of buildings behind high walls.
[00:13:21] Bob: And, and I think it’s important for people to understand you were doing this in, in real time, right? So while you were filming this you, you knew DD was inside?
[00:13:29] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah. And it really strike me when we’re filming outside the compound, it was very quiet. It was surrounded by high walls, and it was not in the city center of Sihanoukville, it was kind of tucked on the side, and just by looking at that building, if I hadn’t heard of DD’s story I would think that just an ordinary office building. It, it looked harmless, but in fact, hundreds of people were locked up there to conduct online romance scam every single day. And it’s shocking how many of these syndicates are still operating in Southeast Asia.
[00:14:10] (film clip): DD is 100 meters away, behind one of those barred windows. Since 2016, Wan Lo has expanded rapidly into what is now a large and well-equipped development which includes a casino, supermarkets, and a swimming pool. There’s even a police station right next to the compound.
[00:14:38] Bob: I find that absolutely chilling to think about. So you, you know, through the course of this journalism, you con–, connect with this organization. You find out about this human being who is desperate to get out. And then, and there you are, almost as if you can see him behind the wall, but at, at least at that moment, you can’t help him, right?
[00:14:57] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah, I couldn’t do anything to help him. And I could see all the windows of that building are locked up, that they install some metal, metal installment outside of the windows, and it looked almost impossible for anyone to escape.
[00:15:16] Bob: Finally, just a few days later after four months of back and forth with GASO, DD’s impatience drives him to take desperate action.
[00:15:26] Zhaoyin Feng: We spent months talking with him, and also analyzing the video diaries he sent us. So of course we established a relationship with DD. He’s like a younger brother to us. We really felt for him. So when he disappeared, after saying goodbye, we’re extremely worried, we were hoping we would hear from him again.
[00:15:59] Bob: A cryptic message from DD arrives. That seems to say simply ‘goodbye.’