Southeast Asia’s online scam hubs are drawing growing attention from governments and law enforcement agencies well beyond the region as the criminal syndicates behind them search further afield for victims of their cons and human trafficking.
On December 8, the United Kingdom announced sanctions against nine people and five companies accused of trafficking people into Southeast Asia’s "scam farms." The same day, Interpol unveiled the results of a major operation against trafficking "hot spots" in 27 countries, many used to funnel people into and across Southeast Asia to staff those farms with forced labor.
"There is certainly a trend for more increased engagement from countries and their law enforcement as this issue becomes more widely understood, and the depth and breadth of the scale of what is actually occurring in Southeast Asia," Rebecca Miller, human trafficking program coordinator for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime regional office for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told VOA.
The U.N. estimates that over 120,000 people are being forced to work in scam centers in Myanmar alone at any time, and another 100,000 or more in Cambodia. Nodes of the multibillion-dollar industry have taken root in Laos and the Philippines as well.
Many are tricked into the work with false promises of other jobs. Once inside the centers, often resembling compounds, they can be barred from leaving by razor wire and armed guards and tortured for failing to meet work quotas or trying to escape, according to accounts of those who have gotten out.
At first, Miller said, the scam centers were recruiting almost exclusively from Southeast Asia and China. Over the past year, though, she noticed far more recruits arriving from outside the region.
"And this has been the issue for several months now and a good portion of 2023, and we’ve been now seeing victims from across Asia but also Africa, the Middle East, South America. All of these individuals have been identified in scam compounds," she said.
Recent UNODC investigation has identified recruits from over 40 countries, including Brazil, Russia, the Netherlands and Uganda.
Looking for new markets
Miller said growing awareness of the scam centers’ recruiting ploys among potential victims in China and Southeast Asia has forced the syndicates to search further afield, targeting countries and regions where most people may not yet know about them.
By casting a wider net for recruits, the syndicates can also increase their pool of potential scam victims, said Jason Tower, Myanmar country director for the United States Institute of Peace, a U.S. government-funded think tank.
"They’re simply looking for new markets, and if they want to scam in the Brazilian market, or if they want to hit people from India or other places, they need individuals who ... have contacts there, who speak those languages," he told VOA.
Troy Gochenour, a U.S. resident who fell victim to a cryptocurrency scam of the sort run out of Southeast Asia, says the syndicates are looking for new markets and finding them. He now investigates such scams for the Global Anti-Scam Organization, a group founded in Singapore now based in the United States.
"I have talked to victims in South America, the Middle East, all over Europe, Australia," Gochenour told VOA.
"No victims in Antarctica yet, but give it time," he said, only half in jest.
"They are truly global," he added. "When you’ve got 100,000 or so people all over Southeast Asia [each] sending out 1,000 or so random messages a day, they’re going to hit a lot of people."
A global operation
More countries are taking note and taking action.
In the announcement of its sanctions targeting the people and companies allegedly behind some of the Southeast Asian scam centers, the British government said it has also rescued some of its own nationals trafficked to the region.
Interpol said the global crackdown it orchestrated in October, Operation Storm Makers II, was its first to specifically target fraud schemes fueled by human trafficking and that it provided fresh evidence of the trend "expanding beyond Southeast Asia."
Countries involved in the operation outside of Southeast Asia ranged from Australia to Brazil, India, South Africa and Turkey. Interpol said the raids led to 281 arrests and that over 360 new investigations were opened as a result.
Still, Tower said most countries have been slow to respond to the growing threat. Like Miller, though, he said he expects more of them to start taking steps like those announced and unveiled this month.
"I anticipate that you’re going to see other countries come out with their own sanctions," he said.
"On the law enforcement side," he added, "I think you’ll continue seeing operations and crackdowns because we’re talking about modern slavery here, and police anywhere are going to have to respond to that, especially as awareness of it increases."
Gochenour said he is skeptical that targeted sanctions like the British actions will do much to stem the scamming tide.
Rather, he said, "it’s really going to boil down to ... more law enforcement being trained how to deal with it and how to trace cryptocurrencies and freeze them and to seize them. That is the best thing that can happen [for] a [scam] victim."
He also welcomed a recent announcement from Tether, a popular cryptocurrency, that it was "onboarding" the U.S. Secret Service and FBI — giving them access to its data to help them fight the system’s abuse — and said he hopes others follow suit.
Tower, though, called the international response still ad hoc and said it needs to be more systematic and coordinated and tackle the "crisis of corruption" that has allowed the syndicates to forge protective alliances with business and political elites is some countries.
Miller said the response also must address the fact that many of these syndicates are not only trafficking people and running online scams but tied into sprawling criminal networks involved in everything from illegal casinos to money laundering and the drug trade.
"A lot of law enforcement at the beginning was really addressing this from just a human trafficking perspective, but it really needs to be addressed from a transnational organized crime perspective if we’re going to have any kind of impact on these syndicates," she said. "So, it really is going to take a collective effort of everyone working together."