In May 2023, Philippine law enforcement agencies freed over 1000 workers from an industrial-scale cyber scam hub 90 kilometres north of Manila. The workers came from 10 different countries around Asia. Their ‘employers’ had confiscated their passports, not allowed them to leave the compound and forced them to work for up to 18 hours a day in ‘prison-like’ conditions.
This was not a one-off cyber scam business. There are many such illicit enterprises in Southeast Asia — notably in Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos — that have been established in recent years using the same business model. This involves luring educated and computer-literate young people to apply for high-paying jobs in fields such as marketing and currency trading through adverts on social media or even through personal contacts. Free travel to the new workplace and meals are an added draw.
But when the job-seekers reach Bangkok, the preferred entry point for mainland Southeast Asia, they are whisked off by bus, taken across land borders and dumped into fortified compounds with armed guards. They have been trafficked. Their passports are confiscated, contracts torn up and they are told to learn the sales routines for particular cyber scams. The fledgling scammers must work 14 hours per day or more, trying to win the confidence of mainly Americans, Europeans and Australians to persuade them of the authenticity of a fake business opportunity or romance.
Money is then paid by those scammed as the culmination of this process, known colloquially as ‘pig butchering’. If the trafficked scammers fail to meet their quotas or break rules, they are subjected to violent punishment that can result in severe injury. Those who have been rescued or escaped have reported harrowing stories of beatings, electric shocks, water torture, sexual exploitation, starvation and confinement in dark rooms.
This combination of cyber scamming and people trafficking in Southeast Asia is largely organised by Chinese gangsters who control gambling across the region. The prohibition of travel from China during COVID-19 cut off these gangsters’ major market while government-imposed restrictions on casinos in Cambodia and offshore gaming operators in the Philippines further dented profits. The gangsters sought new ways to make money and one business option was cyber scamming. But the workforce needed to have English language abilities and computer credentials.
Trafficking allowed such a workforce to be assembled. Premises were available along the Mekong and in other enclaves, often in disused casinos and hotels or in special economic zones. The absence of the principal elements of the rule of law was also needed to make this endeavour successful, as were compliant officials. It is no accident that the countries in which the scamming operations have been taking place are situated on the bottom rungs of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2022 — out of 180 countries, the Philippines is placed 116, Laos 126, Cambodia 150 and Myanmar 157.
Once knowledge of the cyber scam operations became known, largely through the testimonies of escapees and rescued workers, action by the law-enforcement agencies in the countries concerned might have been expected. But it was slow coming. Allegations were ignored or fobbed off. Cambodian police turned a blind eye while a government minister characterised a rescue of cyber slaves as settling a labour dispute. A senior Thai police officer spoke of corruption and resistance by officials in Cambodia adversely affecting a joint operation to release some of the suspected 3000 Thai cyber slaves in the country.
Pressure from other governments whose citizens have been trafficked has led to belated action. In the case of the Philippine cyber scam operation, it was the entreaties of the Indonesian ambassador that led to action, as has been the case with other rescue operations.
Non-government organisations which are concerned with exposing cyber scam operations have been increasing their activity and rescuing unwilling participants. It is partly through their work that the size of the pernicious industry has come to light. Estimates of the numbers trafficked are generally in the tens of thousands. The Humanity Research Consultancy has calculated a figure of around 25,000 although there have been other claims that the numbers could be up to 100,000.
ASEAN leaders have become aware that the region is becoming a cyber scam hub that affects people across the globe including growing numbers of citizens in ASEAN countries. At the ASEAN leaders’ summit in May 2023, there was a unanimous agreement on a regional approach to tackling the twin problem of human trafficking and cybercrime. International law enforcement agencies have been advocating such a coordinated strategy but there are considerable implementation problems.
Cooperation between ASEAN member state law enforcement organisations has proved elusive and is hampered by a lack of standardised legislation, protocols and extradition agreements. Still, the ASEAN leaders’ statement highlights the seriousness of cybercrime in the region and that it has become a billion-dollar industry that wreaks havoc on its victims, both those doing the scamming and those experiencing financial loss. It also causes reputational damage to some Southeast Asian countries and their perceived suitability for legitimate investment.
Mark Turner is Honorary Professor in the School of Business at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.
Anthea McCarthy-Jones is Senior Lecturer in the School of Business at the University of New South Wales, Canberra.