restofworld.org /2022/cambodias-scam-mills/

How Cambodia’s scam mills reel in new “cyber slave” workers

By Daniela Dib 13-16 minutes 11/10/2022
Map of story location

On October 26, at 7 a.m., Linh Ne was abruptly woken in her dormitory by her boss. He was hurrying around the workers’ living quarters, turning out hallway lights to make the building look vacant.

Linh says she and her colleagues worked at a fraudulent investment app operating clandestinely in Bavet, a Cambodian gambling town on the Vietnam border. The company was about to be raided by police, their boss warned. He seemed shocked; he believed he’d maintained a close enough relationship with local authorities to avoid searches.

Linh was trafficked into Cambodia two years ago, she told Rest of World, in an experience she described as “hell.” She said that since then, she’s worked in Bavet’s scam compounds: shadow businesses of online gambling and fraudulent apps tucked behind the town’s casinos, extorting victims based anywhere from the U.S. to neighboring Vietnam. They’re powered by a force of “cyber slaves” — many trafficked and detained under grueling conditions, but some there of their own accord.

Rest of World spoke to members of Linh’s company, along with experts on the scam industry, but couldn’t independently verify her role.

Over those two years, Linh claims she was ransomed between companies, eventually rising to become a recruiter. Now 19 years old, she’s made peace with her role in hiring people into a business that deceived and traumatized her. The morning of the raid, her boss instructed her to lead a group of 30 workers into 12 tuk-tuks and through the Bavet border checkpoint into Mộc Bài, Vietnam, handing them food and cash for the border bribe. He promised her a $300 bonus if she returned.

Most Popular

Government crackdowns on online scam compounds are stoking chaos in Cambodia. They target an industry where, according to reports, workers rise from their bunk beds to spend long hours in front of a computer, facing punishments that range from pushups to a taser or beatings when they miss goals or act out of line. One recruiter estimated that around 20,000 people work in the industry in Bavet alone; the Cambodian government has estimated that 100,000 people have migrated into the country to work in fraud and online gambling.

Many have been lured in, by traffickers and even relatives, on the false promise of high wages. A fraction say that it’s acceptable work — which motivates more employees to flood in, aided by recruiters like Linh. Under increasing international pressure, in late August, the Cambodian government launched a campaign to raid compounds and release workers. The effort has scattered but, so far, not extinguished the vast online ecosystem. 

Rest of World also spoke to people involved in Bavet’s online gambling and scam industries, including three recruiters and a white-hat hacker, who say that despite the raids, the industry continues to thrive.

Ngô Minh Hiếu — a convicted hacker turned cybercrime expert for the Vietnamese government — devotes his time to flagging and blocking online scams, and said that he’s seen no slowdown in scam activity in October amid the crackdown. “Multiple scam websites get eliminated every single day, but new websites are coming up. That means they still have the money to invest. And these slave workers, sometimes they don’t need to pay [them], so technically it doesn’t cost [the business] much.”

“Multiple scam websites get eliminated every single day, but new websites are coming up.”

Even with the raids, a Vietnamese recruiter, Erica, said that people in her position have ways to continue acquiring workers, from placing persuasive ads that assure fair treatment to trading people between companies. (Erica, not her real name, spoke on condition of anonymity due to the illegal nature of her business.) She said, “I also tell them in advance: to do well [here], you need to be smart enough or lucky enough.” 

Cambodia’s transformation into a global scam capital is most evident in Sihanoukville. The coastal city was an investor’s dream, bloated with Chinese-funded casinos and quick-rising skyscrapers. But after online gambling was banned starting in 2020, construction ground to a halt, and the buildings refilled with workers who would eventually power a global machine of romance and investment scams, defrauding victims of millions

In contrast, border towns like Bavet have housed casinos for decades, as Vietnamese pour over for casinos largely unavailable at home. It lacks the frills of Sihanoukville; players flock to well-worn tables and drink canned aloe drinks available at any streetside stall. The town grew from a highway outpost to a gambling hub, aided by traffic from the special economic zones that manufacture and ship goods through the port near Ho Chi Minh City.

Behind the faux-neoclassical casino buildings are nondescript office towers blocked off by barbed wire fences. These house the town’s second layer of businesses: everything from rigged online gambling to pornographic games, high-interest loan apps, and fake shopping schemes.

Though the companies operate illegally, they maintain an internal order similar to that of legal businesses: “sales” teams (scammers) introduce “clients” (victims) to their business, while “HRs” recruit new employees and “logistics” workers handle internal information about the workers and company, Rest of World analysis of job ad materials and conversations with industry sources showed. 

Linh Ne came to Bavet in 2021 at 17 years old, she said, accepting a typist job through Facebook. To cross the border, she pushed through forested areas and waded through a ditch filled with waist-high water; only on arrival did she realize she’d been recruited to a scam company that emulated the shopping platform Tiki. Her employers asked her to defraud Vietnamese shoppers, and she said that when she refused, they starved her. She was sold after two weeks to a second company conducting a romance scam, where her boss gave her a guide to manipulate clients. (“I don’t even have a boyfriend yet,” she recalled thinking to herself.) After two days, she was sold again to the workplace she’s worked at since, and which she said doesn’t physically abuse its workers.

Over the year, Linh has hardened. “If you work here long enough, you will be experienced enough to know what is good and what is bad.”

As a recruiter, Linh posts similar ads to those that lured her into Cambodia. She claims she calls the workers — sometimes even their parents — to talk about the work experience. “A lot of people don’t know about the good and bad companies, so people can see my face and see for themselves if it’s real,” she said. 

Bao Anh, who originally trained as an engineer, was also trafficked into the industry, he said. He lost his job working on a Lao hydropower dam during the pandemic, and came to Cambodia for work in April this year after a family member did the same. He found himself working first for an online lottery company and, when that went bankrupt, for a fake shop front that mimicked big e-commerce platforms like Shopee and Lazada. Miserable and conflicted, he paid out his own ransom of $265 and, on his own, found work as a recruiter for an online gambling group. 

Linh agreed to use her real name, but Bao Anh is a pseudonym, which he asked to use in order to speak candidly. Both requested to withhold the names of their companies because of the illegal nature of the work and their desire to keep their jobs.

Bao Anh recruits Vietnamese workers who can attract and retain customers onto an online gambling site, which he claims legitimately pays out customers. He targets them through gambling groups on Facebook and Telegram and writes blog posts about scam industry life in a chatty, rambling tone, detailing the job’s benefits as well as the realities of life in Bavet. This kind of accessibility, he said, meant that candidates began approaching him, rather than the other way round. 

Bao Anh said that he avoids the easiest form of recruitment — targeting his close ones. “The reason people still go to scam companies is because they are scammed by friends and family,” he told Rest of World, adding that he’s never gone down this route.

Though the recruiters told Rest of World that they’re content in their jobs, each of them described pressures, too. Linh said she appreciated her boss’s attempts to plan social events on weekends but added that attendance is compulsory; workers must pay a $200 fine if they don’t go. Bao Anh told Rest of World that the company held his passport, though he maintained that it wasn’t a serious concern. Erica, who considers herself a veteran after working for Bavet companies on and off since 2017, touted her resilience and control over her work — yet by mid-October, as raids ramped up, she had completely deleted her social media accounts without explanation, and reporters lost contact with her.

“The reason people still go to scam companies is because they are scammed by friends and family.”

The recruiters also deployed euphemisms for an unsavory part of their job: buying and selling workers between companies. Linh described this process as “redeeming” workers, saying her company would pay a lower price to a company looking to offload workers like herself, who struggled in their old jobs. Erica alleged that she tries to negotiate smaller “redemption” fees so workers don’t need to pay out as much to leave a company. But she also said that trading workers in Bavet, for around $1,000, is preferable to other scam hubs like Sihanoukville, where prices start at around $3,000. 

Linh said she continues to send money back to her parents. (A representative for the fraud-fighting nonprofit Global Anti-Scam Organization said these companies’ human resource workers often receive a base salary of $500-$800 per month, sometimes with bonuses of $10,000 to $15,000 per worker acquired.) She added that her parents have donated funds to flood-stricken families as well as the pagoda, praying for Linh as she continues her line of work. “Oh my God, I scammed, and my parents went to the temple. How can the pagoda forgive?” she said. 

With the crackdown forcing her back to Vietnam, Linh thought, at first, that she’d wait for her passport to be processed, then return to Cambodia. But when Rest of World spoke to her in early November, she’d found a job as a waitress in Ho Chi Minh City — at the comparatively low wage of about $240 a month — to escape, she said, the complexity of working for a scam company. “That’s it,” she said. “Linh’s life was stuck on the path of recruiting people so that they could scam other people. Now, I want to restart a new life.” 

Cambodia’s interior minister, who is overseeing the industry crackdown, has said he “does not understand” the technology used by the “electronic gambling” businesses, according to VOD. The crackdown has conducted rescue operations, and authorities say they’ve caught 100 suspected “masterminds.” But local news outlets and social media report signs that the business is moving on, not dying.

Ngô Minh Hiếu, the cybercrime expert, told Rest of World his volunteer community, Chống Lừa Đảo, finds 8,000 suspicious websites on an average day, using machine learning to identify potential online fraud. The project, started in late 2020, is driven by a volunteer group of more than 30 people, mostly based in Vietnam. They’re constantly discussing and checking fraudulent websites, feeding their data into a web app that blocks the flagged URLs. 

Hiếu has traced many websites’ IP addresses to Cambodia, but companies use multiple ways to obscure identifiers, he said. Anyone who registers a website or other internet resource is required to file their name and basic contact information, which can be found through a simple Whois search — but hosting services like Cloudflare and GoDaddy now allow website owners to hide that information. The only way for a hosting service to release that information is under subpoena, Hiếu said.

“I get so tired about this [investigation], because it’s nonstop,” he said. “It’s kind of meaningless to find the real companies behind [the scam]: nothing I can do about that, and these people are very dangerous. So to me, I just try to avoid them.”

Bao Anh spoke to Rest of World in late October. He said he was still working in Bavet but that he’d heard “several hundred” scam workers were released from compounds ahead of raids so that companies wouldn’t be caught with undocumented workers. He’d heard that employers had tried to take the workers away in vehicles, but, desperate, the workers had “destroyed a car” to try to escape. 

His comment matched a video shared on TikTok on October 25, showing people throwing rocks at a bus and shouting “open the door” in Vietnamese. After the crowd broke the bus windows, people started climbing out, and the crowd cheered. Rest of World analysis showed that the bus appeared to be parked alongside the Crown casino compound, owned by notorious Cambodian cigarette and gambling tycoon Senator Kok An. 

In the comments, two users had already advertised jobs. “My company is not checked it’s safe if you’re interested please inbox me,” wrote one.