Over the past decade, Southeast Asia has emerged as a hot spot for cyber scams and online gambling operations. The Philippines was initially the leader in online gambling, with a host of illegal operations growing around licensed activities. In the mid-2010s, however, it became clear that Cambodia had become the leader in hosting both online gambling and cyber scam operations. Northern Myanmar and the Myanmar–Thai border area also house many online fraud compounds, as do a handful of zones in northern Laos. In some cases, large compounds have been set up to accommodate dozens of companies, in others, hotels and condos have been rented out to operators. In all cases, operations are controlled by gangsters and criminal elements, often with links to local elites, or at least with their tacit approval.
For several years, the conditions in these operations were not publicly known. However, around 2018 stories of horrific abuses began to emerge with increasing frequency on Chinese social media accounts. These testimonies told of people being smuggled to Southeast Asian countries or duped into working in compounds that they could not leave. Some people reported they were kidnapped off the streets. Initially, it was mostly Chinese citizens who were recruited to work in these operations, but quickly people from other countries in the region and beyond started to get drawn in. Inside the compounds, people operate online gambling platforms or straight-up scams. While many do enter the industry willingly, many do not. Regardless of how people find their way into the compounds, most often they are not allowed to leave without paying a substantial ransom, sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars. Overwhelming evidence of torture, violence, and brutality within online operations has now become ubiquitous.
As the industry has expanded and the stories of survivors has continued to emerge, courageous journalists have sought to expose the issue, and volunteer rescue teams have worked under often perilous conditions to help get people out. Cyber Scam Monitor was established to draw together the increasing wealth of information that is now out there. Our website is structured as a map comprising project-specific profiles that document the location of reported online crime operations, abuses perpetrated there, and which actors and companies are known to be linked to them. The site content will initially focus on Cambodia, as it has become the regional leader in hosting online crime activities, but it will later expand to cover other countries.
The project was envisioned and developed by a collective of volunteers from various backgrounds, including individuals from the human rights, humanitarian, academic, and media fields. Due to the sensitive nature of the project, and the involvement of dangerous criminal elements and powerful state-linked actors, all contributors are anonymous. The team was motivated to create this platform after several years of watching online crime networks take root and the stories of harrowing abuse expand across Southeast Asia.
For years, government and law enforcement officials in countries hosting online crime operations have denied their existence or downplayed media reports and victim testimonies. This began to change in mid-2022, with regional governments speaking out publicly about how their citizens were being trafficked into online compounds, and then with a crackdown that began in Cambodia in September 2022. However, while the industry has recently taken a hit, it still thrives and hundreds of thousands of people continue to work in hundreds of operations across the Southeast Asia region, many unwillingly. Even where operators have been raided or shut down, accountability remains elusive: very few ringleaders have faced charges and no officials have faced public censure for allowing these activities to go on within the areas they administer. Where operators have been raided or have closed down in anticipation of police action, often they have simply relocated.
By exposing these crimes, Cyber Scam Monitor seeks to keep these activities in the public eye, document abuses and expose those who have enabled them. This industry has been able to thrive by operating in the shadows, and the only way it will be eradicated is by shining a light upon it.
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If you have tips or information related to projects that we have profiled (and projects that we have not) drop us a tip via DM on Twitter or email us at [email protected]. If you have comments or corrections, feel free to let us know.