Foreign workers and tourists, mainly from Africa and Asia who were stranded in Cambodia during the COVID-19 pandemic, were trafficked and forced to work in sophisticated Chinese-run online scams, a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation has found.
Four of the nine captives interviewed by investigators were unemployed teachers – three from Asia and one from Uganda. Another was a construction worker from Bangladesh, three were tourists, and one was a Tanzanian graphic designer.
The nine victims said they were lured by social media adverts promising well-paid jobs in call centres but ended up in shuttered hotel casinos and guarded compounds where they had their passports confiscated before being put to work online.
The victims said they were ordered to create fake profiles on Tinder, WhatsApp and Facebook to entice people into fraudulent investment schemes involving cryptocurrencies, foreign exchange and shares. Those who objected or performed poorly were subjected to violence and threats.
Mary, a teacher from the Philippines, said she miscarried while locked in a room without food and water for three days.
“We were desperate,” said Mary, who was three months pregnant and four months out of work when she responded in July to a Facebook post offering call centre jobs to English-speaking foreigners.
“We thought it was real work but it became a living nightmare,” said the 26-year-old, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
Approached for comment on the nine trafficking cases that the Thomson Reuters Foundation uncovered, a spokesperson for the Cambodian interior ministry said, “We also have heard about this before but until now we still do not have any evidence.”
Cambodian police have previously carried out raids and deported hundreds of Chinese on suspicion of telecoms scams. But organised crime experts said the police have struggled to stamp out online crime because of corruption and weak law enforcement.
A Facebook spokesperson said the company would investigate profiles and groups passed on by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A spokesperson for WhatsApp said that users should use tools in the app to report suspicious activity.
A Tinder spokesperson said it had “zero-tolerance” for “romance scams” and that it would “work with law enforcement to ensure justice is served in such cases”.
Cambodia shut its borders when Covid-19 struck in March 2020, barred almost all international flights and closed its schools to contain the virus, leaving many tourists and foreign workers unemployed and unable to return home.
For more than a decade, Chinese criminal groups have used Cambodia as a base for online scams that duped Chinese nationals out of billions of dollars. Crime experts said the pandemic has made it easier for these groups to target stranded foreigners. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)