Report shows Southeast Asian online scammers are a growing threat

Ever get a random job offer you didn’t apply for on a messaging app? How about a text from a “wrong number” that then tries to initiate a relationship with you? If so, you may have been the target of a fraud attempt. One of the most common is pig butchering scams, where perpetrators build a fake relationship with a victim, extorting money from them over time, typically through cryptocurrency. 

These types of scams are a growing issue globally. The Global Anti-Scam Alliance found that scammers stole over $1 trillion from victims in 2023. A report from The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) has revealed that a large percentage of these scammers are located in Southeast Asia.

A highly lucrative system

According to the report, the criminal networks are mainly Chinese-run and located in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. These highly organized networks target victims worldwide in unregulated online gambling, scamming, and financial fraud, using advanced digital technology like AI and deepfakes. Furthermore, money made from these schemes has moved into the formal economy thanks to complex money laundering operations. 

This may be why the report has found evidence of these networks being supported by ruling elites. In Cambodia, for instance, these cyber scams are believed to be worth more than $12.5 billion annually, which is half of the country’s formal GDP. 

When the scammers are victims too

What stands out about these operations is how many of the scammers take part unwillingly. It’s common for scammers to have been trafficked from other countries, lured by online ads promising high-paid tech jobs. Once they arrive, they’re forced to work at prison-like scam compounds, often surrounded by armed gangs. The USIP report reveals that in Myanmar, the military authorizes border guards to provide extra protection to these scam compounds.

A UN report estimates that at least 120,000 in Myanmar are forced into carrying out online scams, while there are around 100,000 in Laos. These victims endure a range of horrific abuse, from torture to sexual abuse. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk has said:

“People who are coerced into working in these scamming operations endure inhumane treatment while being forced to carry out crimes. They are victims. They are not criminals.”

The takeaway

These scamming networks are a complex issue that won’t be resolved easily. To tackle it, according to Türk, “All affected States need to summon the political will to strengthen human rights and improve governance and the rule of law, including through serious and sustained efforts to tackle corruption.”

Share on Twitter, Facebook, Google+