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Cyber criminals hold Asian technology workers captive in scam factories

CHENNAI/BANGKOK — Indian engineer Stephen Wesley was puzzled when he was asked to take a typing test during an interview for a graphic design job in Thailand — but put it out of his mind when he got the role.

Hours after landing in Bangkok to start work in July, Mr. Wesley and seven other new recruits were instead ferried over the border into Myanmar where their phones and passports were taken, and they were put to work on online cryptocurrency scams.

“I spent up to 18 hours a day researching, typing messages, chatting with people on social media platforms, gaining their trust and encouraging them to invest in cryptocurrency,” said Mr. Wesley, 29, in a telephone interview.

Thousands of people, many with tech skills, have been lured by social media advertisements promising well-paid jobs in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, only to find themselves forced to defraud strangers worldwide via the internet.

Wesley spent 45 days held captive at a compound in Myanmar’s southeastern border town of Myawaddy, and given a list of about 3,500 names that he had to contact via Facebook, Instagram or dating apps.

“We were trained on how to flirt, chat about hobbies, everyday routine, likes and dislikes. In roughly 15 days, the trust would be built and the client would be willing to take our advice on investing in crypto,” he said.

The cybercrime rings first emerged in Cambodia, but have since moved into other countries in the region and are targeting more tech-savvy workers, including from India and Malaysia.

Authorities in these countries and United Nations officials have said they are run by Chinese gangsters who control gambling across southeast Asia and are making up for losses during the pandemic lockdowns.

The experts say the trafficked captives are held in large compounds in converted casinos in Cambodia, and in special economic zones in Myanmar and Laos.

“The gangs targeted skilled, tech-savvy workers who had lost jobs during the pandemic and were desperate, and fell for these bogus recruitment ads,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.

“Authorities have been slow to respond, and in many cases these people are not being treated as victims of trafficking, but as criminals because they were caught up in these scams.”

DUBIOUS TECH FIRMSCybercrime has surged with the rise of digital platforms that brought easy access to personal data online as well as improved translation software and artificial intelligence (AI)-generated photos that help scammers to create fake personas.

The scam that Mr. Wesley and others were forced into is known as pig butchering, where a scammer builds trust with their victims over social media, messaging and dating apps, then pressures them to invest in bogus crypto or online trading schemes.

The term refers to the process by which scammers “feed their victims with promises of romance and riches” before cutting them off and taking their money, according to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, which traced its origins to China in 2019.

“People don’t realize it, but they do share a lot of information on social media platforms,” said Dhanya Menon, director of Avanzo Cyber Security Solutions in India, which advises firms on cybersecurity.

“If you follow someone’s social media for just 15 days, you will glean a lot of information about them,” she said, adding that cryptocurrency scams are on the rise because there is little awareness of how the virtual currency works.

India’s foreign ministry in September issued an advisory warning youth with technology skills of fake job offers in Thailand from “dubious IT firms involved in call-center scam and cryptocurrency fraud.”

Authorities last month said they had rescued about 130 Indians from such schemes in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar – including Mr. Wesley and others.

Myanmar’s military government — which took control of the country in a coup in February 2021 — did not respond to a request for comment.

Cambodian officials, who for months denied reports of abuses and trafficking, have taken a harder stance in recent months, and ordered a crackdown on cyber scam operators across the country.

FAKE DATING PROFILESBell, a 23-year-old Thai woman, said she was lured by the offer of an administration job with a monthly salary of about $1,000 and free food and housing at a casino in Cambodia.

But when Bell — who used a pseudonym to protect her identity — arrived at the casino in the coastal city of Sihanoukville in December, her Chinese employers took away her passport, ID and mobile phone, and locked the doors.

She was made to create a fake profile on social media and build relationships with men on dating app Tinder, then persuade them to invest in stocks.

“I wanted to go home because it wasn’t what I wanted to do, but they said I would have to pay 120,000 to 130,000 baht ($3,175-$3,440),” she said.

“I had to (work) for fear of being beaten.”

Bell and 20 other Thai detainees were rescued in June by Thai police, who have freed more than 1,200 of their citizens from compounds in Cambodia since late last year, said Surawchet Hakphan, assistant commissioner general of the Thai police.

More than 3,000 Thais are still trapped in Sihanoukville and the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, Surachet estimated.

Mr. Wesley, who was also told to pay a large ransom if he wished to leave the compound in Myanmar, had to create a fake persona of a young female Brunei-born graphic designer who was working in Monaco and was fond of posting selfies.

He targeted 50 people daily in Europe, Australia, Britain and India, asking each to invest $20,000 to begin with.

Now back in India, Mr. Wesley is struggling to find work.

“When I look back … I keep wondering if there were any signs that I missed or anything I could have done differently,” he said from Chennai, where he was interviewing for a job.

“But I didn’t suspect anything.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation

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