‘I was a slave’: Up to 100,000 held captive by cybercriminals in Cambodia

Lured to Cambodia by the promise of legitimate employment, tens of thousands of foreigners are instead forced to run online and telephone rackets targeting people around the world with gambling, money lending and romance schemes, to name a few. Other scams have included fake real estate developments and bogus initial coin offerings. — AFP

The hustle started like it often does, with a post on Facebook promising job seekers generously paid customer service positions in Cambodia, no experience necessary.

Soraton Charehkphunpol, a Thai cook scraping by in a restaurant in Bangkok, couldn’t resist the offer to earn more than double his US$470 (RM2,228) monthly salary.

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Late one evening last year, after another grueling shift, Soraton answered the ad. Within hours, a man arrived at his door to take him to the Cambodian border city of Poipet.

It wasn’t long before Soraton realised he had made a mistake. Dumped in a high-rise building above a casino, he was turned over to mobsters who seized his passport and put him to work bilking gamblers on a sham sports betting app.

“The bosses said if I tried to leave they would just sell me to another gang,” said Soraton, a rail-thin 20-year-old from the central Thai city of Nakhon Pathom. “That’s when I realised I was a slave.”

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In a dystopian nightmare come to life, the Cambodian government has given Chinese crime syndicates free rein to bring in tens of thousands of foreign men and women who – according to human rights organisations and their own accounts – are held captive to work in crowded cyber scam mills.

Lured by the promise of legitimate employment, they are instead forced to run online and telephone rackets targeting people around the world with gambling, money lending and romance schemes, to name a few. Other scams have included fake real estate developments and bogus initial coin offerings.

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“The criminals are limited only by their imagination,” said Jason Tower, an executive at the United States Institute of Peace and an expert on transnational Chinese crime syndicates. “These are sophisticated schemes.”

Workers who meet their targets are rewarded. Those who fail are tortured, abused and sold like chattel to other gangs on private messaging apps such as Telegram. Reports of murder, depression and suicidal ideation are rampant.

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The syndicates run their operations not unlike private companies trying to motivate a sales force. The big difference: Employees aren’t allowed to leave.

“Instead of getting fired for poor performance, you get physical punishments – forced push-ups and squats, tased, beaten, deprived of food, locked up in dark rooms or worse,” said Jacob Sims, country director for International Justice Mission Cambodia, a rights group that has helped rescue more than 100 victims. “On the other hand, those who consistently meet or surpass their targets are rewarded with more freedoms, food, money and control over other victims.”

The duped workers come from across Asia, including China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Many cite the economic fallout from the pandemic as a motivating factor for taking a job in Cambodia.

More details about the harrowing conditions inside the mills have emerged in the last few months from rights activists, escapees and independent reporting from the Cambodian media outlet VOD.

In August, the Vietnamese digital media outlet VnExpress obtained dramatic footage of about 40 Vietnamese workers fleeing a converted casino in Cambodia’s Kandal province. Guards wielding sticks tried to block the escapees, most of whom plunged into the Binh Di River to swim across to Vietnam.

Other abuse victims who spoke to The Times and have returned home said they’ll never be the same.

“I’m traumatised. I’m too ashamed to even leave my house,” said Dedek Mulyana, 25, who was tortured with an electric baton and forced to run a scam in which he pretended to be a woman selling pornographic images of herself.

He fled Cambodia in August and returned to his native Indonesia. “I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I did,” he said.

Cambodian officials estimate up to 100,000 people could be involved in the industry, but have denied that it involves widespread human trafficking.

The government – which is led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, a former military commander who has been in power since 1985 – maintains that the vast majority of foreign nationals are in Cambodia willingly and that most conflicts between workers and their employers are contract disputes.

But as more details of the mob operations have come to light, international pressure has mounted on the government to crack down on the industry and free the captive foreign workers.

In July, the US State Department downgraded Cambodia to the lowest tier on its human trafficking index, placing it alongside Afghanistan, Syria and North Korea – an embarrassment to a government struggling for international legitimacy even as it continues to stifle political dissent and independent journalism.

Finally, in September, Cambodian law enforcement raided dozens of compounds in the capital, Phnom Penh, and the seedy resort city of Sihanoukville. Thousands of foreigners were sent home.

Experts said the raids were mostly for show and that many workers were bused to new facilities in less visible areas of Cambodia or to neighbouring Laos and Myanmar.

“It was only after incontrovertible video evidence in media reports emerged combined with a chorus of diplomatic demands for nationals to be returned that the Cambodian authorities realised something needed to be done,” said Sophal Ear, a political scientist and Cambodia specialist at Arizona State University. “Cambodia’s international standing has fallen several rungs as a result of this.”

The coziness between the Cambodian government and the criminal syndicates has focused attention not only on endemic corruption in a country still recovering from decades of civil war but also on its relationship with China.

No country in South-East Asia boasts closer links to Beijing, which covets Cambodia’s strategic position along the South China Sea and views it as a counterbalance to Vietnam, a historical adversary.

The Chinese government made Cambodia one of the first beneficiaries of its most important foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative, which was launched in 2013 and has dramatically expanded China’s global influence by lending countries money to build ports, roads and other infrastructure.

Chinese investment has since transformed communities in Cambodia – and not always for the best.

Chinese crime figures seized on the initiative and the clamour for Chinese money. Several garnered Cambodian citizenship and got rich opening casinos targeting visitors from China, which prohibits gambling everywhere except Macao.

Some of the gangsters are wanted in China for running illegal gambling operations there. But as long as Cambodia remains a devoted ally, Chinese authorities seem unlikely to demand a crackdown that would upset the Cambodian elites profiting from their association with the Mafias.

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the casino owners switched their focus to cyber and telecom scams. All they needed was exploitable labour.

Rezky Rizaldi fit the bill. The 32-year-old Indonesian chef, who previously worked in hotels in Qatar and the Maldives, had been unemployed for months because of the pandemic when he came across an ad on Facebook in February seeking customer service workers for an investment company in Cambodia.

The social media platform said in a statement that it has “long prohibited” such content and has “invested significant resources” in keeping it off the site. It is not clear how often it fails to do so.

Rezky had all the prerequisite skills: proficiency in both English and Microsoft Office. Desperate for a paycheck, he took the job in Cambodia in May.

It marked the start of a four-month ordeal in which he would be trafficked three separate times between ethnic Chinese gangs in Sihanoukville and beaten and shocked with an electric prod by his captors on several occasions for failing to generate enough money from victims.

His first job was a catfishing scam. Rezky was told to create Facebook and Instagram profiles using pictures of male models. He passed the profiles to other workers trapped in the operation who tricked women into online romances and persuaded them to invest in fake cryptocurrency schemes.

Rezky said scammers targeted women in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia because they have emerging middle classes. The aim was to bilk each victim of at least US$30,000, at which point her suitor’s profile would simply disappear.

Rezky ran afoul of his bosses when they learned he had contacted the Indonesian Embassy seeking help. They punished him by trying to extort money from his friends and associates, concocting a story that he had accumulated gambling debts.

When no one responded, they tortured Rezky for three days and put him up for sale on a messaging app. Rezky, who was devoid of emotion as he flatly recounted his horror, said he saw photos of other captives on the app, including one bloodied man with several fingers severed.

One rainy July evening when security guards were distracted, Rezky fled the compound where he had been operating another scam – selling fake World Cup tickets – and made his way to the Indonesian Embassy in Phnom Penh. It took him another month to get home.

Soraton, the Thai captive, was spared violent reprisals from his various minders, who wore luxury brands head to toe like team uniforms. Supervisors at one scam dressed in Gucci, while those at another were outfitted in Louis Vuitton.

It was after he was trafficked a second time that Soraton suffered his most significant trauma. He was working at a fictitious loan company that tricked customers into sending money by telling them it was the only way to access a larger loan. One victim, a middle-aged man from eastern Thailand who needed cash to pay for his mother’s medical care, called the office on video to plead for his life savings back.

When a supervisor refused, the man picked up a handgun, pointed it at his head and pulled the trigger.

“There was just silence after we heard the gunshot,” said Soraton, who was stationed next to the monitor and watched the entire incident. “The boss just walked away. These people have no feelings because they’re human traffickers.”

Soraton would spend several more weeks living in abject terror. Fellow captives were regularly assaulted and one was taken away with a black plastic bag over his head never to return.

Soraton hatched a plan to escape by hiding a cellphone in the ceiling of his sleeping quarters. That allowed him to call his mother.

“She was hysterical,” Soraton said. “It was the first time she heard from me in six months.”

She reached out to an activist outside Bangkok named Ekkaphop Luangprasert who was organising rescue operations, and with the help of a local Cambodian contact, Soraton was able to flee. He walked for two days through rice paddies, sugar cane plantations and jungle with a guide who steered him away from landmines placed more than 40 years ago during Cambodia’s civil war.

In the early morning of Jan 16, he emerged from the thicket with a television news crew and an ambulance waiting for him on the Thai side of the border.

Soraton is now employed in Bangkok as an electrician. He’s recently overcome months of insomnia, a condition he blames on his captivity. Occasionally he’ll receive a spam call offering the latest scam.

“I tell them, ‘Don’t bother, I just made it back home’,” Soraton said. “Then they always ask me, ‘How did you escape?’” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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