Cybercriminals are holding Asian tech workers captive in fraudulent factories

CHENNAI/BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Indian engineer Stephen Wesley was puzzled when asked to take a typing test during an interview for a job as a graphic designer in Thailand – but forgot about it when he got the role.

Hours after landing in Bangkok to begin work in July, Wesley and seven other new recruits were instead flown across the border into Myanmar where their phones and passports were confiscated, and they were put in working on online cryptocurrency scams.

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

Thousands of people, many with technical skills, have been lured by social media advertisements promising high-paying jobs in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, only to find themselves forced to scam foreigners around the world via Internet.

Wesley spent 45 days in captivity at a compound in the border town of Myawaddy in southeastern Myanmar and was given a list of around 3,500 names to contact via Facebook, Instagram or dating apps .

“We were trained on how to flirt, discuss hobbies, daily routine, likes and dislikes. In about 15 days, trust would be established and the client would be ready to follow our advice to invest in cryptography,” he said.

Cybercrime networks first emerged in Cambodia, but have since moved to other countries in the region and are targeting more tech-savvy workers, including from India and Malaysia.

Authorities in those countries and United Nations officials said they were run by Chinese gangsters who control gambling across Southeast Asia and make up for losses during pandemic shutdowns.

Experts say the trafficked captives are being 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 their jobs during the pandemic and were desperate, and fell for these fake recruitment ads,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director 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 got caught up in these scams.”

QUESTIONABLE TECH FIRMS

Cybercrime has exploded with the rise of digital platforms that have made it easier to access personal data online as well as improved translation software and artificial intelligence (AI)-generated photos that help scammers create fake characters.

The scam Wesley and others have been coerced into is known as pig butchering, where a scammer builds trust with his victims on social media, messaging and dating apps, then pressures them to investing in fake crypto or e-commerce systems.

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

“People don’t realize it, but they share a lot of information on social media platforms,” ​​said Dhanya Menon, director of Avanzo Cyber ​​Security Solutions in India, which advises companies 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 as the operation of virtual currency is little known.

In September, India’s Foreign Ministry issued a notice warning young people with tech skills of fake job offers in Thailand from “dodgy IT companies involved in call center scam and crypto fraud. -change”.

Last month, authorities said they had rescued around 130 Indians from such projects in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar – including Wesley and others.

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

Cambodian authorities, who for months have denied reports of abuse and trafficking, have taken a tougher stance in recent months and ordered a crackdown on cyber crooks across the country.

FAKE DATING PROFILES

Bell, a 23-year-old Thai woman, said she was attracted by the offer of an administrative job with a monthly salary of around $1,000 and free food and accommodation at a casino in Cambodia.

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

She was tricked into creating a fake social media profile and forming relationships with men on the dating app Tinder, then persuading them to invest in stocks.

“I wanted to go home because that’s not what I wanted to do, but they said I would have to pay 120,000-130,000 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 released more than 1,200 of their citizens from camps in Cambodia since late last year, said Surachet Hakphan, deputy commissioner general of police. Thai.

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

Wesley, who was also told to pay a large ransom if he wanted to leave the compound in Myanmar, had to create a fake persona of a young Brunei-born graphic designer who worked in Monaco and liked to post selfies.

It targeted 50 people a day in Europe, Australia, Britain and India, asking everyone to invest $20,000 to get started.

Now back in India, Wesley struggles to find work.

“When I look back…I keep wondering if there were any signs 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 a thing.”

($1 = THB37.7875)

Originally posted at: https://www.context.news/digital-rights/cyber-criminals-hold-asian-tech-workers-captive-in-scam-factories

(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj and Nanchanok Wongsamuth; Editing by Rina Chandran and Sonia Elks. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit https://www.context.news/)

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