UK sanctions nine linked to cyber trafficking in Southeast Asia

The United Kingdom on Friday sanctioned 14 individuals and entities connected to Southeast Asia’s sprawling online scamming industry — the first such designation directly targeting the human traffickers who con workers into carrying out fraud.

The sanctions announced by the Treasury target nine individuals with links to so-called “scam compounds” — where workers are held and forced to carry out scams — in Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. They also designated five companies connected to casinos and hotels in Cambodia known to house scam operations.

Southeast Asia’s online scamming industry has exploded since the COVID-19 pandemic, when Chinese transnational gangs with ties to the gambling industry sought to make up for revenue lost to closed borders. People from all over the region — and world — have been baited into the industry with fraudulent job offers, their passports often confiscated upon arrival.

“Victims are promised well-paid jobs but are subject to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment,” the U.K. Treasury wrote.

They are typically forced to carry out “pig butchering” scams, where the perpetrators develop an online relationship with victims before tricking them into transferring large amounts of money, often via fraudulent investments.

The United Nations’ human rights office estimated earlier this year that more than 200,000 people have been trafficked into the industry, including 120,000 into Myanmar alone.

The U.K. Treasury’s sanctions focus largely on two criminal zones in Myanmar and Laos.

Four people affiliated with the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone — an infamous criminal enclave in Laos on the border with Thailand and Myanmar — were targeted, including: Zhao Wei, owner and president of Kings Roman Group, which runs a casino in the zone; his wife and business partner, Su Guiqin; Thai national Nat Rungtawankhiri, a company director; and Australian national Abbas Eberahim, who according to the U.K. Treasury is in charge of security at the casino.

All four were previously sanctioned by the United States Treasury in 2018, for alleged “drug trafficking, money laundering, bribery, and human and wildlife trafficking” through the casino.

The sanctions also single out the ringleaders of scamming operations in the Shwe Kokko Special Economic Zone, one of the most infamous enclaves in Myanmar.

Among those sanctioned is She Zhijiang, a Chinese national and Cambodian citizen who is currently in Thai custody and fighting extradition to his mother country.

According to the U.K. Treasury’s notice, Zhijiang “has been responsible for, provided support for or obtained benefit from the trafficking of individuals to KK Park or Shwe Kokko where they were forced to work as scammers targeting English-speaking individuals and were subject to torture, physical abuse and further cruel inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Myanmar Colonels Saw Chit Thu and Saw Min Min Oo — who both have links to armed units granted control of territory along the border by the military junta — were also sanctioned for their alleged involvement in Shwe Kokko.

The sanctions also target several people with ties to Cambodian scam operations, including Hum Sovanny, chairman of the board of directors of Pacific Real Estate Property Management Company, which has been implicated in scam compounds in the country’s southwest; and Dong Lecheng, the owner of Golden Sun Sky Entertainment Co., Ltd, an alleged linchpin in the coastal scam hub of Sihanoukville.

A regional crackdown

The international sanctions coincide with a crackdown by China on the industry, which has become a thorn to its south. Over the summer, the Chinese government began putting pressure on the Myanmar junta, as well as the groups who control areas along the border, to rein in the criminal enterprises, which often target Chinese citizens.

In late October, a coalition of rebel groups launched an offensive, with one of its stated goals the elimination of scam compounds along the border. The fighting has reached the outskirts of the scam hub of Laukkaing and resulted in the repatriation of trafficked workers throughout the region.

Last month, the Chinese security ministry said more than 31,000 telecom fraud suspects had been handed over to China from Myanmar.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met this week with his counterparts from the Mekong region to discuss security issues.

In a press conference after the meeting, he signaled that curbing the regional scam industry would remain a priority.

“We will resolutely combat cross-border crime in the [region], especially cyber fraud and gambling,” he said, according to the South China Morning Post.

On Friday, Interpol published details of its first operation “specifically targeting the phenomenon of human trafficking-fuelled fraud,” warning that the industry appears to be spreading beyond Southeast Asia.

In one case, 40 Malaysians were trafficked into telecommunications fraud in Peru. In another, several Ugandan citizens were brought first to Dubai before being trafficked to Thailand and Myanmar.

According to Interpol, the operation resulted in the arrest of 281 people for “offences such as human trafficking, passport forgery, corruption, telecommunications fraud, and sexual exploitation,” the rescue of 149 trafficking victims and 360 investigations, some of which are still open.

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James Reddick

James Reddick has worked as a journalist around the world, including in Lebanon and in Cambodia, where he was Deputy Managing Editor of The Phnom Penh Post. He is also a radio and podcast producer for outlets like Snap Judgment.