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Human Trafficking Education

The Dark Intersection of Online Scams and Human Trafficking

By June 1, 2023No Comments

Those people trying to scam you online or via text messages? They might be victims of human trafficking, trapped in a scamming compound in Southeast Asia. 

Several young men look at computer screens in a dark room.

A Web of Deception and Despair

‘Mei’: Hi, is this James?

Matt: Wrong number!

‘Mei’: Oh, I’m sorry about that. This is embarrassing. My name is Mei. I thought I was texting an old friend.

Matt: No problem, have a good day.

‘Mei’: Well, it was nice to meet you, even if by accident! I’m actually new in town and looking to make new friends.

Matt: That’s cool I guess. 

‘Mei’: I’m from Singapore, but I recently moved to Thailand after my divorce. It’s been really tough, so I’m looking for a fresh start. I hope I can meet a good man who is serious and knows what he wants.

Matt: Sorry about your divorce. That sounds tough.

‘Mei’: It’s been difficult, but I’m staying positive. Anyway, enough about my problems. What do you do?

Matt: I work in tech.

‘Mei’: That’s interesting! What do you look like? This is my photo! (Sends a picture of an attractive woman.

Matt: (Sends a photo.

‘Mei’: Wow, you are so attractive! I wish I could know someone like you in real life!

After a few days of texting, ‘Mei’ builds rapport with Matt and pretends to want a relationship with him. 

‘Mei’: I’ve been getting into cryptocurrency recently. Do you know much about it?

Matt: A bit, why do you ask?

‘Mei’: I’ve just found this new crypto that I’m really excited about. I think it’s going to do really well, and I’ve put a lot of money in it after looking at the fundamentals. Would you be interested in learning more about it?

Matt: Sure.

‘Mei’: That’s great. I’ll send you my favorite strategy for crypto!

And so, the scam begins, with Matt having no idea that the friendly, newly divorced woman from Singapore is actually a man named Ajay, an enslaved labor trafficking victim forced to scam him. 

Ajay is a young, ambitious man from Bangalore, India. He was working as a software engineer but had been unemployed for several months due to the economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. One day, Ajay saw a Facebook ad for a high-paying IT job in Thailand. The ad promised an exciting opportunity to work on cutting-edge blockchain technology. He could earn a great salary — far higher than what he could make in Bangalore, even if he was employed. Seeing it as a chance to restart his career and support his family, Ajay decided to take the risk and apply for the job.

The company responded quickly, expressing interest in Ajay’s impressive skillset and experience. They conducted an online interview that seemed professional and legitimate, if a bit perfunctory. They offered him the job. Ecstatic, Ajay accepted the offer and was given a plane ticket to Bangkok. He bid his family and friends goodbye, promising to send money home as soon as he could.

When Ajay arrived at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, he was met by a man who introduced himself as his company liaison. The liaison drove Ajay to what he said was a company-owned apartment, where he would stay until he was settled. Exhausted from the long journey, Ajay went to bed without suspecting anything.

The next day, the liaison told Ajay he needed to visit the company’s office in a town near Thailand’s border with Myanmar. They traveled by van, crossing into Myanmar at a remote border point. It was here that Ajay’s situation took a dark turn. 

The Moei River, which is the border between Myanmar and Thailand

The Moei River, which forms the border between Myanmar and Thailand

He was taken to a secluded, city-like compound, far from the bustling towns and cities he had imagined working in. In the compound, Ajay was introduced to his new “job” — operating online scams targeting people in other countries. His captors gave him a list of phone numbers and told him to text each one, pretending to be an attractive woman. He was instructed to build a rapport with the individuals and then scam them into sending him money to buy cryptocurrency. 

Naturally, Ajay didn’t want to do this work. But he had no choice. His captors monitored his every move, threatening him with violence if he didn’t comply or tried to escape. His passport and personal belongings were confiscated, leaving him trapped and helpless.

Days turned into weeks. Ajay was forced to work long hours, with little food and in terrible living conditions. He was trapped in a nightmare a world away from the exciting new life he had envisioned. 

The Hidden Victims Behind Your Screen

In the age of smartphones and social media, a simple text message or Facebook post can seem innocuous. But for countless individuals across Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, it marks the beginning of a nightmarish journey that leads them into the cruel confines of labor trafficking scamming compounds. The scenario above seems straight out of a Hollywood thriller, but for tens of thousands, it’s a horrifying reality.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, “special economic zones” in Southeast Asia, including those in Myanmar, were set up by Chinese organized crime groups to house gambling operations. These zones attracted large numbers of Chinese gamblers and workers, who could travel freely to places like Myanmar. The operations were large enough that billions of dollars were poured into the zones.

In recent years, however, there has been a significant rise in human trafficking for forced labor in the same areas of Southeast Asia, particularly in Myanmar, Cambodia, The Philippines, and Laos. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought about lockdowns and strict border controls, preventing Chinese workers and gamblers from traveling.  This led to the collapse of previously profitable sectors like gambling. No longer able to generate revenue from gambling, the Chinese criminal syndicates sought new sources of revenue and labor.

They turned to online scam operations known as “Shāzhūpán,” or “pig butchering scams.” Operating with a level of sophistication that belies the grim nature of their trade, teams of scammers employ carefully crafted scripts to ‘fatten up’ their unsuspecting targets. They groom these individuals with a blend of romance and financial promise, skillfully drawing them into investment schemes increasingly focused on the volatile world of cryptocurrency. When the moment is ripe, they execute the “slaughter,” ruthlessly divesting their victims of their hard-earned money. In 2021, this amounted to $190.9 million.

Despite the emotional and financial damage these scammers cause their victims, the chilling fact is that they are themselves both the prey and the predator, caught in a cycle of exploitation that’s difficult to escape. 

The criminal networks exploit the desperation caused by the pandemic, luring people into remote, lawless enclaves with promises of lucrative jobs, often advertised on social media, only to thrust them into the harsh reality of labor compounds. Victims find themselves trapped in hidden, off-grid “business parks.” They are coerced into participating in various illegal activities, including international cryptocurrency investment fraud and online scams.  If they refuse, they face violence and psychological torture​. 

Who are the victims of labor trafficking scamming compounds? 

The unfortunate targets ensnared in this web of deceit often share a common profile — they are startlingly young, with many victims being in their teenage years. These individuals typically possess a solid education and are adept in the use of computers. Furthermore, they usually have the linguistic advantage of fluency in more than one regional language

And the victims aren’t only from Southeast Asia. Reports of individuals from India, Indonesia, Taiwan, Kenya, Ukraine, China, Japan, and the United States being trafficked under similar conditions underscore the global scale of this issue. 

The Rise of Labor Compounds: Shwe Kokko and KK Park

The exact number of people exploited in labor trafficking scamming compounds is unknown. It’s estimated that crime networks in Cambodia alone have lured between 50,000 and 100,000 people into slave-like conditions. In Myanmar, the number could be much higher.

The town of Shwe Kokko in Myanmar, sitting on the Moei River, where it's believed human trafficking takes places at scamming compounds.

The town of Shwe Kokko in Myanmar, where it’s believed human trafficking takes places at scamming compounds.

One of the most notorious enclaves was the Shwe Kokko Yatai New City Project in Myanmar, which was initially developed as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. However, following the exposure of the criminal activities taking place there, the Chinese government distanced itself from the project. The project was halted in 2020, but it resumed following the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021. After the coup, the construction of new enclaves surged, with the United States Institute of Peace identifying 15 distinct criminal zones in the area, all guarded by Karen BGF and headed by Saw Chit Thu​.

Another of these sinister enclaves is known as KK Park,  located on the Moei River which runs along the border of Thailand and Myanmar. As many as 10,000 individuals, lured by deceitful job advertisements and false promises of romance, find themselves trapped in KK Park alone. Their options are limited and brutal: contribute to online scams, pay a ransom they likely can’t afford, or endure unimaginable physical and psychological torture.

The Double-Edged Sword of Technology

In this grim narrative, technology stands as a double-edged sword. It enables these scams and facilitates the labor trafficking that fuels them, but it’s also a tool for liberation. By leveraging technology and innovative investigative techniques, organizations like The Exodus Road disrupt these systems of trafficking and fight to shine a light on these hidden corners of exploitation.

In a world where technology often seems to make things more dangerous, it’s crucial to remember the other side of the paradigm: the power of technology to liberate. With every scam uncovered and every victim freed, we’re reminded that the same tools used to deceive and exploit can also be used to expose and emancipate.

The Exodus Road: Illuminating the Dark

The Exodus Road, an international non-profit organization, has been at the forefront of combating global human trafficking. Since its establishment in 2012, they have played an instrumental role in rescuing more than 2,000 children, women, and men; arresting more than 1,000 traffickers and perpetrators; supporting more than 1,600 survivors with aftercare; and training nearly 3,000 officers and citizens. In 2022 alone, The Exodus Road was instrumental in freeing 397 men, women, and children from exploitation and the arrest of 157 perpetrators across 6 countries of operation. 

The Exodus Road, alongside local and international law enforcement agencies and other like-minded NGOs, combat these criminal networks and help victims of labor trafficking. They work tirelessly to investigate cases, disrupt the cycle of exploitation, and provide a lifeline to victims who have nowhere else to turn.

How to Get Involved

There are several ways to contribute to the fight against labor trafficking:

  • Educate Yourself and Others: Understand the signs of human trafficking and how to report it. Organizations like The Exodus Road offer resources to help you learn more.
  • Support Organizations Fighting Trafficking: Consider donating to or volunteering with organizations like The Exodus Road. Your contributions can make a significant difference in their operations. If you have a background in online investigations, private investigations, law enforcement, or related experience, consider reaching out to The Exodus Road to see how you can share your expertise and make a difference.
  • Advocate for Change: Use your voice and spread the word about human trafficking and its impact. This could be through starting your own fundraising campaign to fight trafficking or leveraging social media, blogging, or organizing and participating in events in your community. Feel free to engage with us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Instagram!
  • Report Suspicious Activity: If you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, you can report it to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733. They also have a chat feature available for those who may not be comfortable making a phone call​​.
  • Volunteer in Your Community: Many local organizations offer the chance to get involved. The National Human Trafficking Hotline provides a referral directory to help you find organizations in your area and across the country that actively fight human trafficking and provide services to victims and survivors​​.

Most importantly, remember that every action, no matter how small, can make a difference in the lives of those impacted by human trafficking. 

The Path to Freedom: A Continued Struggle

The fight against labor trafficking is long and grueling, but The Exodus Road, other human trafficking-focused NGOs, law enforcement, and you, along with innovative uses of technology, provide a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak landscape. As we confront the challenges posed by the ever-evolving nature of these transnational crime syndicates, it is essential to remember that technology can be a tool for liberation, as well as deception. By leveraging technology to expose and emancipate, we move closer to a world where freedom is not a privilege but a fundamental right for all.

Jordan Smith

Jordan Smith

Jordan Smith is Director of International Intelligence at The Exodus Road. He lives with his family in Parker, Colorado, and runs a private investigations agency, Hyperion Investigative Consulting, LLC, which specializes in fraud, cyber, and missing persons investigations. He is a Certified Fraud Examiner and holds an Executive Master of Business Administration from the Quantic School of Business & Technology, where he specialized in startup entrepreneurship, strategic thinking, and US business law.