Beware of Fraud! The Growing Trend of Human Trafficking in Cyberspace

With the constantly growing influence of the internet in our everyday life, online criminality has also reached new and worrying dimensions. What initially began as little more than spam e-mail has now evolved into a complex network of illegal activities on the net. With every click, every download and every piece of personal information we share nowadays, we expect to be running the risk of becoming victims of an online fraud scam. In fact, the reality is even more complex, however: the people being scammed are not the only victims involved in these digital crimes. And with the ongoing development of Artificial Intelligence and cryptocurrencies, the situation is threatening to get worse still.

Human trafficking at the service of fraud is no longer a novelty around the world – even in the digital space. In Asia alone, the number of cyber-fraudsters who are themselves victims of human trafficking and forced labour is now estimated at more than one hundred thousand, according to a UN Report. Under the pretext of tempting job offers, they are lured to different parts of Asia. What appears to be a highly-promising career opportunity rapidly turns out to be a nightmare: the workers recruited fall victim to human traffickers, and are forced to work in so-called “scam centres”.

These scam centres aren’t there to send annoying e-mails, however, as the name might suggest; rather, they are “switchboards of fraud”. Their goal is to contact people online, and use refined manipulation techniques to convince them to invest in apparently lucrative financial products.

The term “Pig Butchering”, which was coined for this new form of labour exploitation, perfectly communicates the brutality and cynicism of this process. Like pigs, which are initially fattened before being slaughtered, unsuspecting victims are first enticed with tempting promises, only then to be exploited. The sheer scale of the fraud is shocking. The exploited workers are supposed to produce profiles on social media, contact people and develop an emotional connection with them. They are then expected to use this basis of trust to convince people to invest in cryptocurrencies over online platforms. The fraudulently-gained funds often disappear over digital payment platforms, making tracing them and prosecution extremely difficult.

The pandemic may have restricted our physical mobility, but at the same time, it opened the door to a new form of human trafficking in the area of online fraud. With closed borders and a dramatic loss of jobs abroad, numerous economic migrants found themselves in a precarious situation. The perpetrators operated cleverly, using social media such as Facebook, Instagram and even dating apps such as Tinder to reach their victims. The ads promised attractive working conditions: high wages, regular bonus payments, as well as free food and accommodation.

For Nop, for example, a job offer on Facebook appeared to offer an opportunity to escape the economic misery of his homeland of Thailand. The reality that awaited him, however, was completely different. Instead of working in an office in Cambodia, he found himself being imprisoned, blackmailed and abused in a building in Sihanoukville. His travel documents and mobile phone were taken away from him, and he was held against his will and forced to commit online fraud. His experiences are merely the tip of the iceberg. Many other people continue to be tricked in similar cases, and suffer the grisly fate of exploitation and violence.

While the world becomes ever more digitalised and the possibilities of the technology progress more quickly than the regulations keeping it in check, cybercriminals are reaching for new tools. In particular, the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into tried-and-tested methods of fraud such as phishing and the use of malware has led to a disturbing worsening in the situation. These fraud campaigns are increasingly difficult to recognise or combat, as they use the modern algorithms of AI to trick their victims. The latest warnings from Interpol show just how grave the problem is. The frauds are often globally networked, making it difficult for law enforcement authorities to stop them. The threat posed by human trafficking in cyberspace and fraud with Al is not just real, but also extremely concerning. The victims – both the people being exploited and the scam workers themselves – are often particularly defenceless against cybercrime, and suffer terrible consequences for their safety, financial stability and mental health.

The situation raises pressing questions. How can we contain the consequences of AI for human trafficking and fraud? What measures need to be taken to protect victims and hold perpetrators to account? In light of the increasing merging of technology and criminality, it is crucially important that governments, law enforcement authorities and technology companies cooperate to find effective solutions – and the AI Act is still just beginning here.

Translated by Tim Lywood

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