We all know them nowadays: the dubious e-mails that regularly clog up our inbox, weird calls purporting to be from Europol and the like, and fake profiles on social networks that make false identities their own in an effort to try to get their hands on our data. The tricks used by scammers vary. Internet crime has been increasing steadily for years now, with unsuspecting victims continually being robbed of their savings. In Austria alone, losses from online fraud now run into millions of euros. It’s no wonder, therefore, that online fraudsters have been demonised by many. One thing many people don’t know, however, is that many of those cyber scammers are themselves victims of human trafficking and forced labour, and are being forced to perform these frauds against their will.
THE FRAUD FACTORIES
For years now, according to Mina Chiang, founder of human rights organisation Humanity Research Consultancy, between tens and hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to steal money from unsuspecting internet users across the world. The fraudsters come mainly from China, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam or Taiwan. They are often lured by the promise of lucrative work prospects, usually in countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. But the dream of a better life rapidly turns into a nightmare: as soon as they arrive, the workers have their passports and any other personal documents taken away from them, and are trapped. They are charged for entering the country – the entry itself is usually illegal – after which they have to “work off” this debt.
The forced labourers are housed in large, empty complexes of buildings, known as “scam factories” or “fraud factories”, where they are forced to create fake profiles on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms. Their next job is to gain the trust of a variety of internet users from wealthy countries, primarily in Europe, Canada and the United States. The aim is usually to get hold of the unsuspecting victims’ telephone numbers, after which they are supposed to convince those victims to transfer money to them via a payment service or invest in apparently sure-fire share deals and cryptocurrencies. This scamming method, in which the numerous victims are literally gutted like a slaughtered piggy bank, is often referred to as “pig butchering”. In this way, thousands of people lose everything they own. Cynical comments and mockery by their peers regarding the naivety of the victims make it even more complicated to reappraise cases of this sort.
BEATEN, LOCKED AWAY AND FORCED TO WORK OVERTIME
In reality, however, the people sitting in these tightly-guarded fraud factories and scamming people on an industrial scale are actually victims themselves. According to estimates by Humanity Research Consultancy, tens of thousands of people are being held in these complexes as slave labourers. The living areas are overflowing, and hygiene conditions as catastrophically awful as you might expect. The majority of the forced labourers are between eighteen and thirty years of age, although reports have surfaced of at least one person who was just 14. Anyone who doesn’t get hold of the desired data on time is harshly punished. Work in the factories goes on almost exclusively at night, between 5.30 pm and 6.30 in the morning, when the greatest numbers of users are active on the online platforms. If they don’t reach their given targets, the workers are frequently forced to work overtime. One former forced labourer, Salam, reported that if he did not achieve performance targets on time and in full, or made any mistakes, he would be forced to work up to 18 hours a day. Physical and mental abuse are also part of day-to-day life. For example, Salam describes how physical punishments such as press-ups, resting on their elbows, beatings and electric shocks were used. Human rights organisations Humanity Research Consultancy and Human Rights Watch have also documented workers being denied food and water, forced prostitution, rape and organ trafficking.
There are also internet fraudsters who merely want to get rich, of course. But people like Salam, who are caught and held in East Asian fraud factories, are not doing so for pleasure, but because they have to. They are modern slaves, in the truest sense of the word: during his life, former forced labourer Salam has been sold on to other human traffickers three times, most recently for 10,000 dollars.
BUT WHO’S BEHIND THE “SCAM FACTORIES”?
The majority of the known scam factories continue to be located in Myanmar and Cambodia, primarily in the “special economic zone” of Sihanoukville. Gangs and similar organisations with mafia-like structures have relocated there over the last decade. Violence and criminality have rapidly become part of everyday life in the once-peaceful coastal region. They are involved in a wide range of criminal activities: illegal gambling, corruption, prostitution, and trafficking drugs, weapons, wild animals and humans. Eventually, with the outbreak of the Corona pandemic in 2019, it wasn’t just companies who were forced to significantly change the way they operated – criminal organisations also had to adapt. A new business model was developed in an effort to turn a profit despite the lack of tourists: online fraud on an industrial scale.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE POLITICIANS?
Working out exactly who is behind the scam factories ranges from difficult to downright impossible. As a rule, the owners of the building complexes are closely linked with regional power structures. This has led to a situation whereby, in July 2022, Cambodia was blacklisted in the annual human rights report of the US State Department. It was only after levels of international interest in the issue increased that Hun Sen, Prime Minister of Cambodia since 1985, announced a more intense battle against the ringleaders. In September of that year, several raids were carried out in the Cambodian coastal city of Sihanoukville, eventually leading to the release of more than 1,000 people from three different factories.
Even such action is far from enough to stop the terrible conditions in the Cambodian coastal city, however. Because of this, human rights activists Phil Robertson and Mina Chiang are demanding far-reaching sanctions by the international community against the countries involved, in order to put an end to this dirty business.
HOW YOU CAN PROTECT YOURSELF AGAINST INTERNET FRAUD
The scam factories in South-East Asia continue to cause huge damage to this day. Internet fraud on this scale is still thriving. This is because many people don’t know what methods of fraud actually exist, and fall into the traps set by the scammers as a result.
The method of scamming used most often by the fraud factories is “pig-butchering”. This involves binding potential victims to them on an emotional level with fake friendships or relationships of love, enabling them to steal their money after a certain amount of time has passed. To recognise possible fraudsters, therefore, always be sure to watch out for the following warning signs:
- Scammers are often very charming, and will quickly make promises of love.
- They will frequently hide behind their online profile – and avoid a video chat or actual meeting wherever possible.
- Your acquaintance will talk about supposedly lucrative businesses or “sure-fire” investments, usually associated with cryptocurrencies. If your heartthrob starts doing this, you should cut the contact immediately.
- Always be careful if online acquaintances ask directly for money.
- Take care never to give anyone information about your financial situation, even indirectly – by telling your heartthrob about expensive hobbies, holidays or similar, for example.
The pig-butchering method isn’t the only kind of internet fraud, of course. Cybercrime comes in many forms, which is why it’s so important to always be on your guard. You can find more explanations of the latest types of fraud, and how you can protect yourself against them, on the website of the Chamber of Labour and on the Watchlist Internet.
Translated by Tim Martinz-Lywood M.A.
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