At an inquiry this week, the Philippine Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality focused on a raid in early-May of an alleged scam hub operating at an accredited POGO site. The site was just a few hours' drive from the Philippine capital, Manila. During that raid, more than one-thousand human trafficking victims from across Asia were rescued.
At the hearing, senators sharply criticized officials from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR), which regulates the country’s online casinos.
“This brings international shame to us. The Philippines is becoming a scam hub”, said Senator Sherwin Gatchalian. “POGOs being used as fronts for scams. POGOs being used as fronts for human trafficking. Because PAGCOR is corrupt and not doing its job.”
The victims in this case were trafficked from 11 countries across Asia. One of them, Jason, who’s real identity and nationality VOA agreed not to reveal due to safety concerns, said he traveled to the Philippines thinking he had a legitimate marketing job only to be forced to carry-out cryptocurrency scams on American and Canadian men who Jason tricked into thinking he was a woman.
Jason spoke to VOA after testifying in front of the Senate committee. He told the senators that when PAGCOR inspectors visited the POGO site once a week, half of the trafficking victims would quietly hide in the dormitory with the shades closed and doors locked.
Senator Risa Hontiveros, the committee’s chair, is calling for POGOs to be banned. “POGOs provide that legal layer to these hubs and the operations of these hubs remain beyond regulatory scrutiny,” Senator Hontiveros said. “If POGOs are allowed to continue business as usual, the crypto-scams and human trafficking operations will also grow at a frightening rate our government will never be able to overtake.”
During the hearing, PAGCOR officials did not deny issues with corruption and admitted needing to improve their regulations and monitoring. PAGCOR also said that it canceled the accreditation of the raided POGO site.
Stories of cryptocurrency scams connected to human trafficking networks have become common throughout Asia with victims trafficked from across the region into Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines where they work in what have been labeled by human rights activists as “fraud factories.” There trafficking victims are forced to be scammers often having to work 15-hours a day.
Non-Government Organizations researching this issue say the number of people trapped in “fraud factories” across the region might top 100-thousand. The victims are often university educated, white-collar workers with social media skills. Some lost their jobs during the COVID pandemic and are desperate for work.
There's huge demand for scammers who can speak English and/or Chinese because these are two widely spoken languages, the Global Anti-Scam Organization told VOA. The victims are often lured by postings on social media promising high paying jobs.
Some victims who’ve been rescued or escaped say disobeying their captors could result in torture or even death. But Jason told VOA there was no violence at his site.
“There’s no physical abuse only mental abuse,” Jason said.
“The worst case is going into the detention room” adding that anyone sent there could spend several days stuck in a dark room and given a minimal amount of food.
Jason said when victims at his compound would fulfil their contracts, which were often six-months, and say they wanted to go home, their supervisors would lie and say they had not been there long enough. They were told they would have to pay fees in the thousands of dollars, an exorbitant amount for many people in this part of the world, if they wanted to go home.
“The company will do any means necessary to keep us," Jason said while acknowledging that some victims were able to go home because their families paid the extortion demand.