The Latest Abuse of Human Trafficking: Forcing Victims into the Cyber Scam
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Advertisements on the White Shark channel of the Telegram messaging service this summer had the neutral tone and clipped sentences you might find on a Craigslist post. But this Chinese-language forum, which had some 5,700 users, did not sell second-hand platoons or cleaning services. He was selling human beings, especially human beings in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and other cities in Southeast Asia.
“Selling a Chinese in Sihanoukville who has just been smuggled from China. 22 with ID, very slow typing,” read an ad, listing $10,000 as the prize. Another began: “Cambodia, Sihanoukville, six Bangladeshis, can type and speak English.” Like leaflets in the days of American slavery, the chain also included bounty offers for people who had run away. (After a ProPublica investigation, Telegram shut down the White Shark channel for “distributing individuals’ private information without their consent.” But similar forums still operate freely.)
Fan, a 22-year-old Chinese who was taken prisoner in 2021, has been sold twice in the past year, he said. He does not know if he was on Telegram. All he knows is that each time he was sold, his new captors increased the amount he would have to pay to buy his freedom. In this way, his debt more than doubled from $7,000 to $15,500 in a country where the annual per capita income is around $1,600.
Fan’s descent into forced labor began, as human trafficking often does, with what seemed like a real opportunity. He had been a cook at his sister’s restaurant in China’s Fujian province until it closed, then delivered meals for an app-based service. In March 2021, Fan was offered a marketing position in what was supposed to be a well-known food delivery company in Cambodia. The offered salary, $1,000 a month, was enticing by local standards, and the company offered to fly him in. Fan was so excited that he told his older brother, who was already working in Cambodia, about the opportunity. Fan’s brother quit his job and joined him. By the time they realized the offer was a sham, it was too late. Their new bosses would not let them leave the compound where they had been put to work.
Unlike the countless trafficked people before them who were forced into prostitution or working for commercial shrimp fishing operations, the two brothers found themselves in a new profession for trafficked people: playing roles in financial scams that have defrauded people around the world, including in the United States.
Tens of thousands of people from China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere in the region have been similarly deceived. Fake job offers lure them to work in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, where Chinese criminal syndicates have set up cyber-fraud operations, according to interviews with human rights defenders, law enforcement order, rescuers and a dozen victims of this new form of human trafficking. The victims are then forced to defraud people all over the world. If they resist, they risk beatings, starvation or electric shocks. Some jump from balconies to escape. Others come to terms with their fate and become paid participants in cybercrime.
Fan and his brother eventually found themselves in Sihanoukville in a compound surrounded by a barbed wire fence. They were designed to trick Germans into depositing funds with a bogus online brokerage controlled by their operation, which also targeted English speakers in Australia and elsewhere.
“This idea of combining two crimes, scamming and human trafficking, is a very new phenomenon,” said Matt Friedman, chief executive of the Mekong Club, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit that fights what she calls modern slavery. Calling it a “double injury,” Friedman said it was unlike anything he had seen in his 35-year career. The phenomenon is just beginning to appear in the United States, notably in an article by Vice published in July.
Among these operations, the most widespread technique is that of butchering the pig, alluding to the practice of fattening a pig before slaughtering it. The approach combines some tried-and-true elements of fraud — like earning trust, Ponzi-style, by allowing brands to easily extract money early on — with elements unique to the age of ‘Internet. It relies on the effectiveness of social media relationships and the ease with which currencies can be moved electronically.
Typically, scammers indulge in online friendships or romantic relationships and then manipulate their targets into depositing larger and larger sums into investment platforms controlled by the scammers. Once targets are unable or unwilling to deposit more, they lose access to their original funds. They are then told that the only way to get their money back is to deposit even more money or pay high fees. Needless to say, all extra funds disappear the same way.
Some Americans have lost huge sums. A California entrepreneur says she was scammed out of $2million and unwittingly facilitated another million dollar losses by convincing her friends to join her in what appeared to be a foolproof investment . A Houston hospital technician enlisted her friends and colleagues to join her in a similar project, which cost the group $110,000. A Connecticut accountant is no longer planning for retirement after watching $180,000 disappear in two separate scams. They were among more than two dozen scam victims from seven countries interviewed by ProPublica.