Lure of quick riches snares Chinese in murky Southeast Asian scam syndicates

Wan Lixin
Whether by choice or coercion, participating in phone and other fraudulent scams isn't always what it's cracked up to be. Getting out can be a problem.
Wan Lixin

A botanist with a PhD from the Chinese Academy of Sciences has become the latest Chinese person to be "rescued" after becoming entangled in scam syndicates in Myanmar.

The botanist, identified only as Dr Zhang, went to Myanmar in August 2022 to make some money as an interpreter and repay debts, according to Jimu News. He somehow ended up in the dusty border town of Myawaddy, where he fell in with an organization of scammers. When he realized his error, he was blocked from leaving.

His family kept in touch with him periodically throughout the year. Zhang appealed to them to raise ransom money for his release, Jimu said. But at the end of last month, Zhang's relatives had their bank account frozen during an attempted money transfer.

On August 25, Jimu reported that Zhang's release had been secured, through the intervention of a volunteer negotiator identified only as A Long. He was taken to Thailand and reported to be in good health. It isn't clear if ransom was paid.

This is far from the only incidence where Chinese people, either willingly or unwittingly, get snared into organized scams and gambling fraud in Myanmar.

According to China Central TV reports, since February 2021, over 100 "fraud parks" have been identified, operating phone scams at the Myawaddy border. They are among the estimated 1,000 such parks in eastern and northern Myanmar, deploying more than 100,000 people to phone overseas numbers with one scam or another.

On August 23, six Chinese suspected of participating in scam phone calls were handed over to Chinese police at Yangon International Airport by local authorities. The six included one pivotal figure in a cyberscam syndicate.

Lure of quick riches snares Chinese in murky Southeast Asian scam syndicates

For Chinese who want to escape from the clutches of illegal syndicates, extraction can be difficult and often involves ransoms.

Chen Hai, Chinese ambassador to Myanmar, met with diplomats from Thailand and Laos on August 22 to pledge his support for coordinating efforts to crack down on scam organizations that prey on unsuspecting victims both in China and other countries.

The State Council, China's cabinet, recently suggested that phone scam groups in northern Myanmar alone account for 69 percent of fraudsters operating overseas. And Chinese citizens seem to be actively involved in many of them.

By March 2022, a joint work force operating under the council had investigated some 43,786 Chinese returnees from northern Myanmar and 10,589 suspects who had crossed the border illegally.

A businessman named A Long, who used to work in Cambodia and Thailand, now specializes in helping those trapped in scam syndicates to return home.

In a recent interview with Sanlian Life Weekly magazine, he said 90 percent of Chinese who head for Myanmar illegally were looking for jobs in fraud syndicates.

Myanmar became a mecca for such illegal operations after Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam began cracking down on phone scam syndicates, beginning in 2015. Many of the scammers simply relocated to Myanmar, where a well-developed scam chain was already operating and where new laws permitting foreigners to operate casinos added a gambling aspect to the vice industry.

A Long claimed the number of phone scam parks in Myawaddy soared from about 20 to nearly 80 after the new laws came in.

The scams cover a myriad of activities, including trading in stolen personal data, smuggling and money laundering, often in cahoots with local armed criminal groups.

A Long said that release is not guaranteed, even after ransom is paid. It's a complicated process, he said, where success hinges on the reliability of middlemen, who might be influential business people or even someone in the Myanmar armed forces.

Many of those who fall into the web of scam syndicates – by choice or coercion – come from underdeveloped regions in Yunnan, Guizhou, Hunan, or Jiangxi provinces.

Some who claim they were kidnapped and forced into scamming actually went to Myanmar seeking to make money in the vice operations, A Long said.

In the first few months when a newcomer arrives, he is given training and treated to the high life of wining and dining, gambling and whoring to whet his appetite to make money, according to reports.

After training, newbie scammers sit for assessment, and those who pass are given a one-year contract. They work around 16 hours a day, with promises of commissions of up to 30 percent for successfully snaring a victim on the phone or online.

A Long remembers helping secure the release of two former bricklayers from Jiangxi Province who failed to pass the assessment and found themselves in a hopeless situation trying to survive on the perimeters of a scam park.

Scammers who don't do well on the job face penalties that can start with something as trifling as 200 push-ups and can escalate into beatings or solitary confinement in a dark room. Sometimes underperforming scammers are sold to other businesses in the same line of work.

When successful returnees come back to China, with money to splash on houses and cars, other townsfolk are tempted to try their luck.

According to Zhang Liang, a policeman in Yunnan whose job it is to coax Chinese scammers in Myanmar to return home, he has "rescued" about 1,400 people in the last two years. That's a drop in the bucket amid the estimated 40,000 Yunnan residents involved in phone scam work.

Zhang reportedly said scams are a particular problem in the underdeveloped Kokang, Wa and Mongla areas of Myanmar. Parks there were first built by local armed forces, then rented to scam operators who hail from Fujian, Guizhou and Yunnan provinces in China, he said. The armed forces provide catering and security for the fraudsters.

It's getting harder and harder to get scammers back, Zhang said. In 2021, over 100 people were returned in an average month. That number has dropped to less than 10 this year.

At the same time, the costs for securing the release of scammers has also risen. In 2021, the family of one person had to pay about 10,000 yuan for a release. Now, in the Golden Triangle in Laos, the cost could be up to 40,000 yuan, with one extreme case in the Kokang area of Myanmar costing nearly 400,000 yuan.

The road back home of one young man is a case in point.

A 19-year-old named Zhu Hang recently shared details of his two month-ordeal in a "scam park" in Cambodia.

The Shanghai Observer, a digital media outlet based in Shanghai, reported that Zhu, 19, traveled to the park at the instigation of an acquaintance who, like Zhu, was formerly engaged in facilitating illicit money transfers for fraudsters.

But Zhu proved to be incompetent on the job, failing to nail any successful scams in his first month there. He was released after his parents paid a US$2,000 ransom.

It was a grueling experience, Zhu said. Although he wasn't subjected to any torture, he said he heard of such cruelties second hand.

The park where he worked included a number of large casinos, Internet gambling companies and organizations of phone scam, he said.

His mobile phone and passport were confiscated the moment he arrived. Except for the security guards and the chefs, all the people who worked in the park were Chinese, he said.

The work space, heavily guarded, was crammed with over 100 computers, with young workers frantically clicking away at their keyboards.

Zhu first worked in a section where he tried to wheedle money from Europeans and Americans under the guise of being an acquaintance. He had been tutored on how to gain the confidence of potential victims with a scripted spiel.

Because of his incompetence, he was later switched to a section that tried to gull victims by presenting himself as a Singapore widow in need of an heir and selling an investment scheme.

Zhu said that one successful scammer managed to pull in US$3 million in one month and was rewarded with a US$400,000 payout.

No such luck for Zhu, who was disdained by his supervisors, got little sleep and lost over 5 kilograms during the one-month stay in the park.

When Zhu returned home in May, he was nabbed by Shanghai police for his earlier involvement in illegal money transfers.

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