In recent years, Cambodia has hosted high-rise compounds — many built in Chinese-run “special economic zones” — that human right advocates say in part serve as quasi factories for online financial fraud conducted against victims across Asia, and increasingly, in the United States. Forbes recently profiled one California-based scam victim, who lost over $1 million to what’s known as a “pig butchering” scam, where a scammer builds a longer term relationship with their victim before convincing them to invest money into a cryptocurrency scheme.
Inside these hubs, workers who have been lured and trafficked from neighboring countries are made to conduct these scams via various online channels. However, as part of a recent nationwide crackdown against what Cambodian government officials have called “illegal gambling,” at least some building complexes believed to house these cryptocurrency-fueled financial scam operations have been disrupted in recent days, experts say.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Sar Kheng, Cambodia’s interior minister, said that 176 people had been arrested in connection to the series of raids, spanning eight nationalities. In a statement issued on Sunday by the Preah Sihanouk provincial government, authorities said that in the raid they had recovered four guns, 804 computers, 16 laptops, 36 passports, four pairs of handcuffs, eight electric batons, two “electric shock torches” and nearly 9,000 phones.
The people trapped in these compounds often come from Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia, among other nearby countries, with the promise of high-paying jobs. However, once arriving in Cambodia, they are made to scam people online, sometimes at the threat of violence.
Bilce Tan, a 41-year-old Malaysian man, says that in April he saw an online job ad that got his attention. This job, for a managerial position in Cambodia at a digital marketing firm, was supposedly going to pay 12,000 ringgit, or approximately $2,700 a month. That’s roughly six times the median salary in his home country, according to the most recent data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia.
Tan told Forbes that he was held for a few weeks in a Sihanoukville compound earlier this year, before managing to escape, noting that he wasn’t very good at scamming people. But he described being given 10 phones, two computers, and “seven or eight fake accounts to communicate with those victims.”
“So long as their primary owners are not brought to justice, these fraud factories will continue and also metastasize to other countries. They are still too lucrative.”
Some Cambodia experts are not convinced that the government’s recent crackdown marks a definitive end to the years-long massive scam operations that have taken place in the southeast Asian nation.
“It’s becoming a diplomatic embarrassment for a country that appears to harbor criminal elements that are running a sovereign operation in economic zones,” Sophal Ear, a Cambodian-American professor at Arizona State University, told Forbes.
Similarly, Jan Santiago, the Los Angeles-based deputy director of the Global Anti-Scam Organization, an advocacy group, said that he doesn’t anticipate this will significantly halt scamming operations.
“It may disrupt the cyber scamming activities from Cambodia temporarily,” he said in a text message. “So long as their primary owners are not brought to justice, these fraud factories will continue and also metastasize to other countries. They are still too lucrative.”
On Tuesday, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said that his government was “very concerned” about this issue and “takes seriously the plight of Malaysians stranded in several countries such as Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia.” The prime minister also encouraged Malaysians to be “wary of job offers overseas.”
Last month, Kheng, the Cambodian interior minister, said in a statement that the Cambodian government had rescued 865 foreign victims between January 1 and August 20, and referred 60 people for prosecution.
“On behalf of the Royal Government and the National Committee for Counter Trafficking, I deeply regret and vehemently condemn these inhumane acts,” he wrote. “I therefore appreciate and welcome any information from individuals, foreign diplomatic missions and embassies in Cambodia on the aforementioned cases.”
Cambodia’s increased efforts to go after human trafficking come just several weeks after the U.S. State Department downgraded Cambodia in its annual “Trafficking in Persons” report, which was issued in July.
That document concludes that the Cambodian government “did not investigate or hold criminally accountable any officials involved in the large majority of credible reports of complicity, in particular with unscrupulous business owners who subjected thousands of men, women, and children throughout the country to human trafficking in entertainment establishments, brick kilns, and online scam operations.”
Virak Ou, the founder and president of Future Forum, a Cambodian think tank, said that the government in Phnom Penh is now facing a “foreign relations nightmare.”
“I don’t think the Cambodian government understands the magnitude of the scams and the other harsh reality of trafficking and money laundering that has been taking place,” he said by text message.
Therarith Chan contributed Khmer-language translation.
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