A 26-year-old Malaysian who decided to accept a job offer in Cambodia found himself forced to work for a criminal syndicate as a scammer for three months before he was rescued earlier in 2022.
His experience was the subject of a video produced by Chinese media Lianhe Zaobao (Zaobao), offering a glimpse into the syndicates operating out of the Cambodian city of Sihanoukville.
What did his account reveal?
Tricked into working as an online investment scammer by the syndicate
According to the video that was uploaded on Jun. 19, Lee Wei Hong (not his real name) said he was introduced to a job offer involving online gambling operations in Sihanoukville by a former colleague.
This offer included, among other things, a monthly salary of US$3,000 to US$4,000, food, lodging and air tickets, as well as additional commission.
However, upon arrival at the airport, Lee said his passport was taken by the "company" and that the contract he was shown was "completely different" from what he had been told.
Lee added that he was then taken to a compound that served as the base for scams operations that targeted Chinese nationals.
The syndicate subsequently forced him to work as an online investment scammer, by looking for potential victims on the Chinese social media platforms, WeChat and QQ.
Zaobao further reported that based on Lee's observation, the syndicate appeared to have 120 employees, with most of them from mainland China.
Some of the details that Lee revealed regarding the nature of the scams' operations included:
- The use of scripts to lure victims,
- Maintaining a chat group with around 50 fake accounts to keep up an impression of authenticity, and
- Successfully swindling at least S$410,000 from 30 people within three months.
Compounds run by syndicate essentially self-contained neighbourhoods
Lee added that he also attempted to escape the compound several times but was unable to do so due to the compound's isolation and armed security.
While these compounds appear dilapidated on the outside, they contain minimarts, living quarters, clinics, restaurants, massage parlours and salons, Lee said.
In addition, people who attempt to leave and are discovered by the syndicate will be beaten and confined.
Zaobao further reported that Lee eventually took a risk in messaging his family about his circumstances.
His family then filed a report with the Malaysian police and embassy, with the assistance of the Global Anti-Scam Organisation (GASO), a non-profit organisation founded by a Singaporean scam victim.
About two to three days later, the syndicate received a tip-off about the police report regarding Lee.
Lee said his phone was then confiscated, but he managed to avoid a beating by deleting the messages he sent to his family.
He was eventually rescued a week later, under the coordination of GASO.
An instance of "cyber slavery" in Cambodia
Lee's account is an instance of what Nikkei Asia has called "cyber slavery" in Cambodia, in an article published in September 2021.
Both Zaobao and the Japanese media outlet reported that people tricked into working for such syndicates can be subjected to physical abuse such as being beaten repeatedly with a stick or even being electrocuted with a taser.
There are also people who allegedly have been killed, with their deaths reported as suicides afterwards, according to others who escaped.
While most of the victims tricked into working for such syndicates are from China, many of them are also from Southeast Asian countries.
In April 2022, the Thai police said there are as many as 1,500 Thais allegedly being held against their will in Sihanoukville by such syndicates, Cambodian media Khmer Times reported.
Nikkei Asia further reported that such criminal networks grew out of an influx of online gambling groups and casino operators into Sihanoukville in 2016, mostly from China.
They were drawn in by Cambodia's low taxes and lax regulations, following a crackdown in the Philippines on such groups.
Most of these gambling groups and operators cater largely to the mainland Chinese, as forms of gambling except state-run lotteries are illegal within China.
Not all are working with syndicates against their will
Not all of the people working for the syndicates are supposedly doing so against their will, however.
Cambodian police were further quoted by the Khmer Times as saying that in the case of Thai nationals, at least 30 per cent of them involved in the syndicates' operations could be doing it willingly due to the amount of money they receive if they meet quotas that have been set.
The Cambodian authorities also claimed that some Thai nationals who are tech savvy have found the income earned through scams to be lucrative, and the work "stress-free".
Such a point was also echoed by GASO in Zaobao's video, in which those who deliver are rewarded well in cash, as a form of encouragement, and as part of a larger carrot-and-stick approach.
Are there any efforts being made to crack down on such operations?
Nikkei Asia reported that in 2019, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a ban on online gambling, following pressure from China, which had been pursuing its own crackdown on online gambling operations.
According to China's Ministry of Public Security, online gambling networks are tied to the illicit outflow of money from the mainland, which amounts to over US$145 billion (S$201 billion).
The online gambling operations are also seen by the Chinese government as a major source of embarrassment, given their impact on China's reputation.
The ban resulted in several of these networks and syndicates relocating to Myanmar.
In 2021, both China and Cambodia also announced the establishment of a joint law enforcement office to crack down on kidnapping, extorting, online gambling and fraud operations.
However, there are also many syndicates that have reportedly continued to stay in Cambodia, according to a source from a volunteer organisation of Chinese businessmen in Cambodia which helps victims who have escaped the criminal networks.
Top cover photo screenshots from Lianhe Zaobao/Facebook