Vulnerable workers forced to work as scam artists in Southeast Asia

Tomoko Tsuda / The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Thai man forced to take part in online scams in Cambodia talks about his experience during an interview in Bangkok in October.

BANGKOK/HANOI – Young people from Southeast Asia who lost jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic are falling victim to human traffickers and are being forced to commit crimes by Chinese scammers, according to an organization helping victims.

In exclusive interviews with The Yomiuri Shimbun, two such victims from Thailand and Vietnam detailed the abuse they suffered and spoke about the shame they felt at becoming the perpetrators of crimes.

From late 2021 until June this year, Nop (not his real name), who lives in Sukhothai in northern Thailand, was forced to take part in online scams at a casino run by a Chinese national in Cambodia. “All I thought about was going back home,” recalled Nop, 40.

Nop quit his job after his mother’s health declined but he struggled to find other work during the pandemic until a job listing on Facebook caught his eye. The position was in the administration department of a casino in Cambodia and came with a monthly salary of $1,000 (about ¥130,000) plus free accommodation and meals. The ad said the business was legal. Nop quickly decided to apply.

After Nop was made to wait for several hours at a house near the Thailand-Cambodia border, a Chinese national and a Thai national who appeared to be in charge of the operation arrived and took him to a casino in the southern Cambodian city of Sihanoukville and his passport was confiscated. His job was to masquerade as a woman on dating apps and contact Thai men with requests to send money for fictitious business investments.

He said he was forced to work 15 to 18 hours every day. After Nop met his quota, he would contact the people he had been targeting to tell them they were being scammed and break off the interactions. “To be honest, I didn’t want to deceive anybody,” Nop said. Cambodian police officers visited the casino from time to time, but they did not help Nop, they were there only to demand bribes.

Nop sent text messages to embassies and police from his mobile phone in an attempt to get help. Even though he quickly deleted the messages, the gang became suspicious.

He claimed several Chinese nationals held him down on a chair and electrocuted him, and he was placed in a dark room by himself for three days without food.

In June, Nop made contact with a Thai volunteer organization and Thai police came to get him, but he ended up being prosecuted on suspicion of fraud.

“I’m happy I could come back to Thailand, but I’m not a criminal,” Nop insisted. “I’m a victim.”

Victims ‘not seen as humans’

In August, 42 Vietnamese nationals fled from a casino in southern Cambodia near the Vietnam border. One of them was an 18-year-old man from southern Vietnam.

The man went to Ho Chi Minh City in early April after an acquaintance told him about a “computer-related job” there that pays 7 million to 10 million dong (about ¥40,000 to ¥57,000) per month.

His employer took him about 100 kilometers away to the southern Vietnam city of Tay Ninh, and he was then made to walk through a forest for five or six hours in the middle of the night. His employer was a broker, who handed the man over to a Chinese company.

The man’s job also involved pretending to be a woman and striking up online conversations with men in an attempt to trick them into sending money for bogus investments. After about one month, the man was sold to another company, where he took part in similar scams.

The man claimed people addressed him by a number, not his name. When he refused to work or attempted to resist, he was handcuffed, forced to sit on a chair and electrocuted by three Chinese people until he lost consciousness. When he came to, he said he was physically assaulted again.

On Aug. 18, the man and other Vietnamese nationals escaped from the facility where they were being held. Even now, the man has dreams in which he is electrocuted to death.

“The members of that Chinese organization didn’t see us as humans,” the man said. “I hope my fellow countrymen never go through what I went through.”