The dominant media narrative about trafficking involves a woman or child kidnapped or coerced into the sex trade. It was a big part of what launched the documentary that was the origin and genesis of The Freedom Story. A decade and a half later, trafficking into the sex trade – including online sexual exploitation – continues to be the main form of trafficking that we fight against.
In the work we’ve done to raise awareness and protect people against trafficking in the sex trade, we’ve seen remarkable change as children and their families gain resilience and empower themselves to circumvent exploitation.
But our work is not done.
Traffickers are savvy. They evolve with changes in technology and the opportunities that brings them. Increasingly, we’re witnessing a new threat: trafficking to online scam centers.
The New Threat: Trafficking People to Commit Online Scams
News reports over the past year, alongside accounts from our own community members alerting us to the ways in which they’ve been targeted, show that traffickers are taking advantage of special economic zones in the region where they’re able to run scam operations, luring people in with what appear to be legitimate job offers, then forcing them to engage in illegal actitives.
Now traffickers are not only targeting the poor or uneducated. They’ve expanded their aims to also target middle class, educated people who might have lost jobs due to the pandemic and are keen to find new jobs or income. Their lures are strikingly similar: ads posted on social media offering lucrative jobs working in call centers or as tech support. People from all over the region respond to these ads, only to discover that they have been trafficked. Extreme violence is used to force them to engage in criminal activity, running scams to trick other victims out of their money, for the benefit of their traffickers.
Just this month, more than 1,000 trafficking victims had been rescued in a series of operations across Southeast Asia. They had been trafficked to perform cyber scams for crypto websites or apps. One of the victims had made a video that went viral on social media, detailing the abuse they had suffered. According to the CBS news article, “the victim said they were tortured when they failed to reach certain work targets, receiving beatings, electrocutions and other physical punishments.”
Cross-border trafficking is especially complicated to combat. Even when a country such as Thailand has the will and resources to address the problem, other countries must be relied upon for collaboration. “Thai authorities can often identify victims and track perpetrators through bank accounts, internet data and phone records,” but enforcement still falls upon other countries who might not be as well equipped.
Over the past year or more, there have been scores of articles detailing hundreds and even thousands of victims discovered. It is hard to overstate the scale of the problem. As an assistant commissioner in charge of anti-trafficking put it, “In the past, trafficking was done person to person. But online, you can trick a hundred people at the same time.”
It also should not be overlooked how much pain is inflicted upon the victims of these scams as well. Many victims lose all their assets and suffer a great deal of emotional pain as well. The victims are global – local in Asia, as well as across the world in the US.
A CNN article explains the process:
“Scammers blast out millions of unsolicited messages each day to unsuspecting victims via text message and social media, often with an innocuous note like, “Hi, how are you?”
The scammer operating under a false identity builds a relationship with the victim, sometimes over just a few weeks, before suggesting the victim “invest” in cryptocurrency.
One technique involves assuring a victim that the scammer has made significant profits in cryptocurrency, persuading the victim they shouldn’t miss out on the benefits of cryptocurrency investments.
Those who fall for the scam are coaxed into sending more and more money, and even provided with fictitious financial statements that make it appear their investments have made a substantial return.” Then when you try to collect your money, you find the person has ghosted you.
Evolving Prevention to Meet This New Threat
As we gather with our local communities and expand our reach to other vulnerable areas, we’re adapting our messaging to include the threat of trafficking to these online scam centers. We have seen up close how people in our community have been targeted and enticed by the lures of these job offers, and we find it essential to keep spreading the word so others will not be duped. It is also essential to raise awareness more globally about these scams, so that others will not fall prey to losing their money in these schemes.
You, too, can help spread the word to protect others in your communities and hopefully together we can put an end to this abhorrent development.