Who’s on the other end of the line when you get a scam phone call? Often, it’s a victim of human trafficking whose safety — and perhaps their life — depends on their ability to successfully steal your money. A recent UN report suggests there are hundreds of thousands of trafficking victims forced to work in sweatshops in Southeast Asia devoted to one thing: Stealing money. If they don’t, they go hungry, or they are beaten … or worse.
In other words, there are often victims on both ends of scam phone calls.
Americans report they are inundated with scam phone calls, emails and text messages, and FBI data shows losses are skyrocketing. Crypto scams alone increased more than 125% last year, with $3.3 billion in reported losses. These numbers are so large that they are meaningless to most; and you’ve probably heard before that this or that crime is skyrocketing, so perhaps that alarmist-sounding statement doesn’t penetrate. But let me say this: I spend all week talking to victims of scams and law enforcement officials about tech-based crimes, and by any measure I can observe, there is a very concerning spike in organized online crime.
A recent report published by the United Nations helps explain why — for some “criminals,” stealing money from you is a matter of life and death.
The recent surge of activity dates to the pandemic, the report says. Public health measures forced the abrupt closing of casinos in places like Cambodia, which sent operators — including some controlled by criminal networks — looking for alternative revenue streams. The toxic combination of out-of-work casino employees and a new tool that made international theft easy — cryptocurrency — led to an explosion in “scam centers” devoted to romance crimes, fake crypto investment schemes, and so on.
The scam centers have an endless need for “workers.” Many are lured from other Asian nations by help-wanted ads with promises of big salaries and work visas. Instead, new arrivals are often faced with violence, their passports taken, their families left wondering what happened — or, called with ransom demands.
There have been plenty of horror stories with anecdotes about forced scam center labor. Here’s one account from a Malaysian man who went to Thailand for what he thought was a legitimate job.
- “Ah Hong soon found out that he was to carry out online scams for a call center that targeted people living in the United States and Europe. Everyone working there was given a target and those who failed to achieve it would be punished. “Punishment included being forced to run in the hot sun for two hours, beaten by sticks or asked to carry heavy bricks for long hours. “If we made a mistake, we were tasered,” he said. Ah Hong added that he was once punished by having to move bricks from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., besides being beaten multiple times. A typical working day, he said, would begin at midnight and end at 5 p.m.
He was only released when his family paid his ransom.
The recent United Nations report attempted to estimate how many Ah Hongs there are. The report’s conclusion is terrifying.
- The number of people who have fallen victim to online scam trafficking in Southeast Asia is difficult to estimate because of its clandestine nature and gaps in the official response. Credible sources indicate that at least 120,000 people across Myanmar may be held in situations where they are forced to carry out online scams, while credible estimates in Cambodia have similarly indicated at least 100,000 people forcibly involved in online scams.
We only know what happens to these trafficking victims from the stories of those, like Hong, who have escaped. The UN report details more horrors about conditions in these scam centers.
- Reports have also been received of people being chained to their desk. Many victims report that their passports were confiscated, often along with their mobile phones or they were otherwise prohibited from contacting friends or family, a situation that UN human rights experts have described as ‘detention incommunicado’.
- In addition, there is reportedly inadequate access to medical treatment with some disturbing
cases of victims who have died as a result of mistreatment and lack of medical care. Reports commonly describe people being subjected to torture, cruel and degrading treatment and punishments including the threat or use of violence (as well as being made to witness violence against others) most commonly beatings, humiliation, electrocution and solitary confinement, especially if they resist orders or disobey compound rules or if they do not meet expected
scamming targets. Reports have also been received of sexual violence, including gang rape as well as trafficking into the sex sector, most usually as punishment, for example for failing to meet their targets.
When I hear stories from the victim’s point of view, I am often amazed at how relentless the criminals can be. Some spend months, even years, grooming victims with faux attention and love. Understanding how high the stakes are for the people on the other end of the phone helps explain why they can be so determined.
From a self-preservation point of view, I think it’s crucial we understand just why scam criminal activity is thriving right now. But from a human rights point of view, it’s critical we call out this hideous behavior and work to stop it. The UN paper blames several factors, but one that caught my eye is the existence of Special Enterprise Zones — SEZs — designed to help support new industries. Ideally, SEZs encourage entrepreneurship by cutting red tape. But in some cases, they have become synonymous with “opaque regulation and the proliferation of multiple illicit economies, including human trafficking, illegal wildlife trade, and drug production,” the report says.
It’s also interesting to think about the implications for trafficking victims. Even after they are released or they manage to escape, many face challenges back home for being involved in criminal operations. The UN report stresses that scam center victims — like other human trafficking victims — are not legally responsible for crimes they were forced to commit against their will. They should not face prosecution; doing so only prevents more victims from coming forward.
“People who are coerced into working in these scamming operations endure inhumane treatment while being forced to carry out crimes. They are victims. They are not criminals,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk. “In continuing to call for justice for those who have been defrauded through online criminality, we must not forget that this complex phenomenon has two sets of victims.”
The report also makes clear who likely victims are:
- Most people trafficked into the online scam operations are men, although women and adolescents are also among the victims…Most are not citizens of the countries in which the trafficking occurs. Many of the victims are well-educated, sometimes coming from professional jobs or with graduate or even post-graduate degrees, computer-literate and multilingual. Victims come from across the ASEAN region (from Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam), as well as mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, South Asia, and even further afield from Africa and Latin America.
Every thoughtful adult should read the UN report, and make sure your friends and family understand why the stakes in the scam world have become so high.