Southeast Asia: Torture chambers and karaoke bars in gang-run ‘scam farms’

Southeast Asia: Torture chambers and karaoke bars in gang-run ‘scam farms’

It is estimated that there are about 400 such criminal enterprises in the Philippines alone, almost always operating clandestinely and illegally, alongside licensed and legal online gaming operations.

The proliferation of online scams targeting victims around the world is a relatively new phenomenon that has exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Philippine Presidential Commission on Organized Crime (PAOCC) has raided and shut down dozens of operations in recent years and is working with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to explore ways to work with other countries to disrupt and dismantle scam farms in Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

Fraudulent farms like this one, north of Manila, the capital of the Philippines, can accommodate hundreds of workers.

Fraudulent farms like this one, north of Manila, the capital of the Philippines, can accommodate hundreds of workers.

UN NewsDaniel Dickinson visited two of the raided locations in Manila, the Philippine capital, and Bamban, in the north. He spoke to two people: Susan, a Filipina, and Dylan*, a Malaysian, who were forced to commit fraud. He also met Winston Casio of the PAOCC.

Suzanne: My half-sister tricked me into leaving home and going to Myanmar where she promised me a job in marketing at her company. It turned out to be a scam and I was forced to work to pay off my sister’s debts after she fled.

I created a fake character, a wealthy young woman based in Brooklyn, New York, who owned real estate and businesses. The managers gave me images from an Instagram account to build the character and told me to contact divorced or single men in the United States and ask them to wire me money. This is called a “romance scam.” In the photos, my character is always shopping. But I couldn’t even go out. I was stuck inside the building.

We are given scripts to use in text conversations, and when I am told to improvise, I use a grammar app to check my English. If the client wants to meet you on a video call, they have models who play the role. Models are also victims of trafficking.

Susan was trafficked to a scam farm in Myanmar.

Susan was trafficked to a scam farm in Myanmar.

Dylan : Most people don’t choose to be there. You have to work up to 16 hours a day, especially when you have to contact clients across different time zones. Managers told me to convince them to invest in a fictitious oil deal in Dubai and then steal their money.

There are quotas for the amount of money you have to swindle. They set me a goal of $100,000 a month, and when I didn’t reach that goal, I was beaten.

Winston Casio: We have rescued about 680 people from the Bamban scam, but we believe a number of directors escaped after being informed.

These are large-scale operations. People are not allowed to leave. They are held against their will and forced to commit scams and fraud. Women are trafficked as sex slaves and the managers of one farm had what they called “the aquarium” where women were forcibly displayed and selected by men for sex.

Winston Casio stands in the former barbershop of a scam farm in Manila.

Winston Casio stands in the former barbershop of a scam farm in Manila.

Each location is independent and everything is provided. Of course, there are dormitories and cafeterias, but also a hair salon, a medical clinic, a massage spa, a games room as well as a VIP karaoke bar for senior executives, where they can drink, sing and socialize in private rooms.

A few meters down the corridor we also found a torture room with handcuffs and blood stains on the walls, where people were taken to be brutally punished when they did not meet their quotas.

Suzanne: I almost scammed some customers, but I felt uncomfortable and warned them secretly while telling my manager that they had blocked me. He got angry and beat me with a metal pipe. My injuries were too severe to be treated at the scammers’ farm, so I was taken to the hospital by three guards, but I couldn’t tell the doctors what really happened to me. I’m still suffering from the physical and emotional trauma.

A VIP karaoke bar was open just a few meters from a corridor leading to a torture room.

A VIP karaoke bar was open just a few meters from a corridor leading to a torture room.

Dylan : I didn’t earn a salary but I started to accumulate debts because I had to pay for food, which cost two to three times more on the farm than outside. I was released after a month when the establishment was raided.

Scripts used by an employee to communicate with victims are found on a desk in a scam farm raided by authorities.

Scripts used by an employee to communicate with victims are found on a desk in a scam farm raided by authorities.

Winston Casio: It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between a victim and an accomplice. Sometimes people are abducted against their will, but after four or five days of training, they engage in illegal activity and manage to get by, or even make money. The law wants to see this situation in black and white, but there are many gray areas.

It is an understatement to say that this situation is difficult, because the transnational organized criminal networks that operate these facilities are always three or four steps ahead of us.

This is a regional problem that no country can solve alone. This is organized crime. Susan will confirm that the furniture and computer equipment are the same in the premises in Myanmar and the Philippines.

Law enforcement agencies across Southeast Asia need to collaborate and coordinate, and that is why UNODC is important. It can bring countries together and provide them with expertise, for example on digital forensic investigations.

A workstation is abandoned following a raid on a scam farm in Manila.

A workstation is abandoned following a raid on a scam farm in Manila.

Suzanne: Towards the end, I was beaten 13 times in one day. I just prayed and prayed while they beat me. I had to call my parents and ask them to pay $7,000 for my ransom, which was the amount of the hospital bill. They didn’t have the money and I told them not to try to pay it. I told my managers, “Just kill me.”

They don’t care about people. They only care about money. But eventually they realized that I had no money and was of no use to them, so they let me go. I went through Thailand back to the Philippines.

***

Susan now works for PAOCC in Manila, and Dylan has agreed to be a witness in a possible upcoming lawsuit and hopes to eventually return home to Malaysia.

*These are not their real names