I wrote recently about being the target of the ugly cyberscam with the ugly name of ‘pig butchering’ that involves human trafficking, that operates largely out of Cambodia and neighboring countries. ProPublica had written a detailed expose of the scam and this may have possibly led Cambodian authorities to crack down on the practice.
A new type of online fraud emanating from scam sweatshops in Southeast Asia is facing its first major crackdown. Cambodian authorities have stepped up raids on compounds alleged to house workers engaging in online fraud, seizing computers, phones and electric shock batons and freeing thousands of involuntary workers. And Apple has removed from its app store two popular trading apps that cybercriminal groups in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have used to defraud people.
As ProPublica reported in a Sept. 13 investigation, pig butchering scams have been fueled by human trafficking. Workers from around Asia are tricked into going to Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar for seemingly well-paid jobs that instead trap them inside scam sweatshops run by Chinese criminal syndicates. Those who resist directives to engage in online fraud face beatings, food deprivation or worse.
Since mid-September, police raids in at least three Cambodian cities have freed thousands of workers from buildings where they were said to have been detained against their will, according to press releases and local news reports. The crackdowns followed escalating diplomatic pressure and rising scrutiny from local and international press, including ProPublica.
The raids have confirmed the worrying nexus of cybercrime, human trafficking and torture that ProPublica documented in its investigation. A statement describing one police inspection of a building complex in Sihanoukville listed 8,776 phones, 804 computers, 16 laptops, four pairs of handcuffs and 10 electric shock devices among evidence seized in the raid. Video of the compound shot by a VOD reporter shows buildings with barred windows surrounded by barbed-wire fences, similar to locations visited by ProPublica in May where workers alleged illegal detention and torture.
Jake Sims, Cambodia country director for International Justice Mission, a nongovernmental organization that has been helping rescue people trapped inside scam sweatshops, commended the efforts to end what he called the “scam-slavery phenomenon.” Sims said more action is needed to hold perpetrators accountable and to care for victims, and he cautioned that the task will become more difficult as criminal groups shift operations to more remote regions.
Unfortunately, as long as there are unscrupulous and greedy people on one side and gullible people on the other, such scams will be hard to exterminate.