Fraudsters are coming up with more and more sophisticated and persuasive tactic that are scamming billions of dollars out of Australians of all ages and backgrounds, every year. These scams are truly devasting both financially and emotionally, but this only highlights the half of what’s going on.

That’s to say that sinister compounds have popped up all over South-East Asia that are industrial-scale scam operations. These heavily guarded scam compounds trap people forced to work under terrifying conditions.

In other words, on both sides people are the victim. The Myanmar country director at the United States Institute of Peace, Jason Tower, explains that the people “are forced” to come in and scam people and “are forced” to meet the targets set by their traffickers. Jason Tower knows all about the “fraud factory” having completed his research in online scam centres and human trafficking rings across the region, focusing on their rise and the impact for regional security.

Meanwhile, here in Australia we are feeling the impact these scams organisations who are set up all over the world, and their targets. As a result, in Australia we have record numbers of people being scammed out of their money daily. In July, a report compiled by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) found that in 2021 over $2 billion was lost to scammers. Out of that about 700 million was stolen by investment scams. And another $142 million was lost to “romance scams” – scammers pretend to be an interested in a person romantically using a fake social media profile and as time progresses, they ask for money as the relationship builds. The scammer persuades them to transfer money or “invest” it in crypto or fake trading site. Eventually they disappear with the transferred or invested funds.

Certainly, people of all ages fall victim to scams in Australia even if the over 65years old lost the most money and are less likely to report the loss. The 18–34-year-old group still reported losing $53 million to Scamwatch. Meanwhile, scammers are demanding they be paid in cryptocurrency with a substantial increase 216% in a year.

Most victims are unable to pinpoint the exact location of the scammer, but methods used by criminal groups in Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos over the past few years look to correspond with the tactics in these findings.

The pandemic appears to have multiplied the South-East Asia-based scams, especially as the loss of tourism meant lack of funds. For example, the Casino towns emptied out and many places pre-covid had issues with  organised crime activity and money laundering mainly from China, after Chinese investment . To clarify, Chinese gangsters changed their venue of operation from the casino in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar to online scamming fraud factories. These fraudulent online scamming sites squeezed money out of online gamblers and enables the gangsters to take up other scams of the net.  

The Global Anti-Scam Organisation (GASO) was set up in June last year to support people who had fallen victim to online scamming. It’s founder Jessica Lin a Singaporean created the initiative after she was herself fell victim to a scammer. Jan Santiago a company spokesperson says that online scams are like a clothing factory in South-East Asia were criminals force thousands. It’s basically a “fraud factory” with links to political connections, corporate organisations, professional money-laundering networks, with an ever-increasing global reach. Santiago, says “they have refined social engineering techniques to defraud and extort via cryptocurrency.”

Cybersecurity researcher at Vietnam’s National Computer Security Centre, known by his “ethical hacker” name Hieupc, shared documents with The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age. These documents show how these criminal organisations run as Hieupc managed to gain access to information and back-end systems used by scam centres in Cambodia.

From these backend documents they see that the fraud factories are divided between different criminal outfits with teams from China or Vietnam for example on different floors. Each team is given a list and a script to scam people who speak their language. Meanwhile it depends on the scam as to what tactics they use. For example, a simple scam may involve persuading people to gamble online – casino games that never cash out or lure people into high-yield digital investment platforms (pyramid schemes), using chat apps. The criminal group every few months will shut down the websites or apps used for the scam and will create new ones that function in the same way but have a different design and name. Victims are found by scammers through social media or paying Youtubers to advertise. Each small company according to Hieupc, has racked up millions of dollars.

There are those people choose to scam and want to defraud people out of their money. But in reality crime bosses have found it difficult to find workers for their scams and have turned to tricking people with fraudulent job ads and kidnapping them off the street. Unfortunately, many are trapped in these fraud factories in South-East Asia’s that have slavery conditions – the new type of modern slavery. And they are subjected to horrifying treatments if the attempt to leave.

These “fraud factories” are protected and racking in the billions in SEA. In addition, they have begun their secondary business of human trafficking – large-scale torture, rape, and other abuses to feed their labour-intensive criminal enterprises, says Santiago.

In other words, these scam bosses who are Chinese and Taiwanese and running these operations are dangerous and evil to the core, according to Hieupc’s, as he tells the same story. These bosses exploit and use naive people who are looking for a legal job. They keep them captive and force them to work long hours – 8am – 11pm. And if they don’t make enough money they beat and threaten the poor people. Escaping is often too dangerous. For example, a 25-year-old Vietnamese man who was helping Hiepc to hack into a management system and shut down scam operations from the inside, managed to escape by jumping from a window, but broke his leg in the process.

While another group of Vietnamese trafficking victims managed to escape out of compound in Sihanoukville, Cambodia some told Hieupc they escaped but others were recaptured by the scammers or killed. It “turned out like a war with blood and violence”

It’s estimated thousands of people are being forced to work as scammers in Cambodia and held against their will, according to some experts. But this could be just the tip of the iceberg as visits to the some of the sites indicate much higher numbers. Lindsey Kennedy and Nathan Paul Southern from the Age share their incites on their recent visit. For example, they discovered compounds like the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GTSEZ) in Laos that are heavily guarded. The casino is nicknamed Kings Romans. Newly constructed tower blocks surrounded by barbed wire, appear in the compound row after row. Locals say that these tower block house the scammers, acting like dorm rooms.  That’s to say, in one site alone tens of thousands of people could be held in modern slavery conditions, as you see the clothing hanging from the windows. The place is fully occupied.

Certainly, if we move to other mega-casino towns such as the ones recently popping up of the jungle in Myanmar, similar stories appear of more giant scam operations. And news from Cambodia media and Thai authorities detail report and accounts from both survivors and rescuers. Most importantly they say that people are crammed into sprawling dormitory buildings and isolated office blocks throughout the country, repurposed casino-hotels and gambling hubs, hubs in Sihanoukville, on the coast. In other words, this type of sites is popping up everywhere and ten of thousands are being forced to work in these fraud factories. And that means Australian people and people all over the world are being targeted by financial scams.

A spokesperson for the Australian Federal Police in Cambodia said that “cyber activity against Australians is increasing in frequency, scale and impact” and that the AFP were working closely with the Cambodian law enforcement to reduce transnational cybercrime. The internet and digital platforms to recruit and exploit trafficking victims, is on the increase, according to the AFP spokesperson will the currency of choice being crypto. “It easier for traffickers to receive, hide and move large amounts of money with less risk of being detected”, he said

On the other hand, as the AFP are working closely with Cambodian law enforcement, the Cambodian police and government officials are not shutting these places down. They are either too scared or unwilling.  

These fraud factory bosses seem to be too well connected. For example, trafficked and sold survivors from KB Hotel in Sihanoukville say it all happened by an online scam company.

Meanwhile,  some Cambodian police believe that the scam bosses have the right to detain workers because they’ve signed a contract (albeit to commit crimes) insisting the bosses aren’t holding them captive. And people who have time on their contract or owe employers money are obligated to their boss.

Even the Thai authorities and other governments have tried to help without a great deal of success. Thai police accompanied local Cambodian police to try and rescue 3000 Thais believed to have been tricked into working for scam operators and held against their will in a string of locations the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and Sihanoukville. However, they only managed to rescue 66 people because of local corruption and resistance by Cambodia, according to the Thai police’s own statement.

To clarify the issue Thais had to spend eight hours negotiating with the Chinese owners at one gated building in Sihanoukville because Cambodian police wouldn’t demand entry on their behalf. To gain access and retrieve just 24 workers trapped inside they had to pay $1 500 first.

Police photo of a joint Thai-Cambodia police operation which raided two Preah Sihanouk locations in Cambodia. The Thais were working for a phone scam gang.

Some efforts have been made to educate people back home on the risks, especially those countries who have been targeted by traffickers and scammers. Firstly, The Golden Triangle in Thailand, a ferry crossing to Laos is the way a number of tricked Thai people cross over to work for scam rings.

So, the authorities have posters warning people not to fall for fake job ads.

Secondly, to prevent scam operators targeting its own people China has also stepped up public education efforts. But unfortunately, this means that scammers from China set their sights on Australia and the West. And they try to traffic English speaking workers.

In other words, it’s made it more difficult for these criminals to traffic Chinese nationals into these scam and fraud zones overseas.” says Tower, especially due to a combination of China’s draconian COVID restrictions and the Chinese government’s public education.

But now Chinese criminals are– targeting victims across the region and beyond, now really going global.

Most importantly, in this fight against scams is to simply make their business unprofitable. To clarify, education is the key it’s the most effective weapon against organised crime groups perpetuating scams and abusing workers. Firstly, we need to boost awareness regarding online and telephone scams. Secondly, educate people on how to spot the signs so they don’t hand over money in the first place. IN addition, use the GASO list that is continually updated with all the know scam sites. If people check it first it might save them from being conned. Some are even identified as targeting Australians which include fake investments such as AUSTRALTRADE” and “AUSFOREX.”

If you’re ever a victim of scams come forward and let Scam watch know what happened to you. This could help someone else not become a victim. According to Scam watch only 13 per cent of Australian victims ever report it. Above all, we need to protect victims of scams and of human trafficking and without the intelligence it will make it harder.

Please don’t feel silly, or ashamed of being tricked by these scammers they are sophisticated and master manipulators.

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