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Opinion: Sinister enslavement for fraud

30 June 2023

Your online scammer could have been trafficked and tortured, writes David Westlake


Miracle (not her real name), from Indonesia, was trafficked and forced into scamming

Miracle (not her real name), from Indonesia, was trafficked and forced into scamming

WE ALL receive scam messages — and I cannot be alone in noticing that they are becoming more frequent. Last month, several UK banks gave warnings about a sharp increase in online fraud.

It disturbs me that anyone will go to such lengths to steal my money; but what has chilled me to the core is learning that the person on the other end of a scam call or message could be a victim of human trafficking — forced into involvement in fraud by the threats of beatings and electrocution.

My colleagues at International Justice Mission (IJM) in Cambodia were some of the first people to respond to this sinister new form of modern slavery, forced scamming. Human traffickers are luring people with false job offers online, paying their transport costs, and then trapping them in heavily guarded compounds in places such as Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos.

Under the threat of extreme violence, the victims must scam people all around the world. Survivors whom we have helped have shown us bruises the size of watermelons caused by being beaten, and burns from electrocution — the result of not hitting their scamming targets.

Disturbingly, forced scamming is one of the most complex and fast-growing forms of modern slavery in the world.

INTERPOL recently issued a rare “orange” warning that forced scamming is now a “global threat to public safety” and “has become a global human trafficking crisis”. The United States government also raised the seriousness of this issue this month in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report. It said that this was a “rapidly growing and troubling trend” and that “cyber scams — from fake dating profiles to illegal gambling operations — are increasingly perpetuated through forced criminality.”

There are probably hundreds of thousands of people trapped in forced scamming in South-East Asia. While it was Cambodia that initially emerged as a hotspot, exploitation is now also reported in Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, and beyond. What is more, this crime is highly lucrative: it is estimated to generate at least $US12 billion per year in Cambodia alone.

Criminals are targeting educated people with offers of jobs in areas such as online marketing. Miracle (not her real name), a 45-year-old woman from Indonesia, speaks fluent English and Mandarin. She was looking for a job that would help her to save for her retirement, and she accepted a legitimate-looking job with a good salary in Cambodia. But, when she arrived, she realised, to her horror, that she had been tricked and trafficked to a forced scamming compound. “The supervisor electrocuted one of my colleagues after making a mistake,” she says. “I wanted to save him, but I could not do anything.”

More survivors have horrifying stories to tell — of rape, torture, starvation, and suspicious deaths. Terrified of what might happen to her, Miracle was forced to create false profiles and persuade people around the world to invest in cryptocurrency scams.

IJM has been able to work with police to bring more than 100 survivors of this crime to safety — people such as Miracle. Earlier this year, Miracle courageously testified against her traffickers, and we worked with partners to help her secure the first successful conviction of traffickers for this crime in the region.

There is an urgent need for greater accountability to stop criminals from exploiting and abusing more people like Miracle. There is also an urgent need for greater collaboration between regional and global law enforcement.

ONE of the means by which this problem can be tackled is proper victim-screening; otherwise, there is a danger of re-victimising people by detaining, arresting, charging, and convicting individuals who have been coerced into engaging in criminal activities. A co-ordinated response from governments, UN bodies, and local and international agencies is needed.

Social-media platforms, telecoms providers, and financial institutions also need to understand how their systems are being used to facilitate aspects of this crime — and they need to be a part of the solution. In addition, there needs to be greater awareness of this crime, so that fewer people fall prey to the traffickers.

To get one step ahead of the traffickers and criminal networks, we need to act fast.

There are victims at every level, from the people trafficked to the people, in the UK as well as other countries, whom they scam out of their life savings. This crime is truly global and can affect everyone. This is why, alongside governments, civil society, and tech companies, the Church and each of us has a significant part to play in ending forced scamming — through prayer, generosity, and action.

In the face of this dark crime, there is always hope for change — but this change will come only when we act.

David Westlake is the chief executive of International Justice Mission UK.

To join IJM in praying for change, visit ijmuk.org/pray; to donate to an appeal for the mission’s work, visit ijmuk.org/stop

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