PhD holder trapped in scam syndicate in Myanmar shares tale of woe
A Chinese Academy of Sciences doctoral degree holder who was caught up in a telecom scam in Myanmar made headlines in August and has continued to do so since his release.
Only identified as Zhang, he wrote on Weibo on September 11 that, since returning home on September 5, he had refrained from saying anything because he had been cooperating with the investigation and was ill, though he promised to "make some clarifications on some issues of general concern in a spirit true to the public and to myself."
Zhang had pursued postdoctoral studies after graduating from CAS's Institute of Earth Environment. Due to his precarious financial situation in 2022, he attempted to find work in Singapore but was duped into joining a telecom scam syndicate in Myawaddy, southeast Myanmar.
On September 12, Zhang told China National Radio that he worked at Lushan Botanical Park in Jiangxi Province but fell into financial trouble last year. With no job prospects, he decided to try his luck overseas.
He got in touch with an online agent who told him that a Singapore company was hiring customer support representatives, but it was impossible to get visas due to the pandemic. The agent then told him the company had a branch in Thailand.
"All I wanted was a regular-paying job," he told CNR. "Since it appeared reasonable that I could not enter Singapore, I entertained the possibility of entering Singapore after working for a while at their Thai branch office."
After landing in Thailand, the agent attempted everything to assuage Zhang's concerns, promising to give him an advance on his income upon his arrival at the branch office. Zhang opted to check it out at the branch because he didn't have any money for travel expenses, but he soon realized he could no longer extricate himself.
CNR: How did you get to Myanmar from Thailand?
Zhang: There was only a river separating the two countries, though I had no idea it served as the border at the time. Throughout the journey, they made no mention of Myanmar, only Thailand. I had heard of scams in north Myanmar but had no idea they were also in east Myanmar. When I realized I had fallen into a trap, I was already in Myanmar. Prior to this, I was concerned about my personal safety, but I had no idea this was a scam park.
CNR: What did you experience after getting there?
Zhang: The park was near the border river but far from any cities.
CNR: What were you asked to do?
Zhang: I was in charge of chatting. Using chat software to send text messages. That syndicate was not involved in telecom scams.
CNR: Who were the target customers? What product were you trying to sell?
Zhang: I was involved in digital currency scams, trying to entice people to invest, including customers from other countries, such as Europeans and Americans, as well as some Chinese. They could have used translation software so that they could communicate with foreigners even if they did not speak English.
(Zhang indicated that many of those trapped like him received training so that some wealthy Europeans and Americans would take the bait. There was a strict division of labor. Some of them would look for new victims by perusing overseas social media, while others would try to keep the victims on hold by chatting them up through scripted talk.)
Zhang: They would show us some successful cases to study. Customers were obtained through social media, with some members of the syndicate specializing in this. These would then be referred to us so that we could strike up a conversation with them. We'd pretend to be women in order to meet some European and American men, first by saying something romantic and then casually introducing some investment ideas.
CNR: Did you have a script?
Zhang: For example, we learned how to cotton up to the clients by first lying about our parents or relatives being in the same place as the customer so that we would be there... We learned about their interests and family assets.
CNR: Was it easy to achieve success?
Zhang: Since there were so many people who were being scammed, it was becoming increasingly difficult to succeed. The syndicate's earnings were falling every month.
CNR: Were you being watched as you typed on the keyboard?
Zhang: They had a position called "system superintendent," which specialized in keeping an eye on us every day.
(Zhang remained in a gated park where everyone's personal freedom was restricted. They could call their families on occasion, but only at specific times and under the watchful eye of others. Zhang worked from 10pm to 6am. They were put up in dorms with eight people who were all young Chinese who had been duped into entering Myanmar.)
Zhang: They were mostly Chinese, in their twenties or thirties, with a junior or senior high school education. It all started with my participation in the chat line. If your results were good, you would be promoted in stages.
CNR: How do they assess your performance?
Zhang: It was determined by your ability to hook up with wealthy clients.
CNR: Have you ever been beaten up?
Zhang: Once, while calling my family, I mentioned the scam and was caught. I was beaten up and kept in solitary confinement for nearly a month. I'd be standing against the wall with my hands tied for more than ten hours a day. But I did hear of others who tried to flee and were caught and badly beaten up.
CNR: Did you get paid there?
Zhang: You only earned a fixed amount of money for the first month, roughly 6,000 yuan (US$822), but after that, you only got a deduction from the amount of money you scammed; otherwise, you got nothing. I was only paid for the first month. There was a supermarket there, and everything was four or five times more expensive than outside.
(Zhang's cellphone and all personal documents were confiscated, ostensibly for security reasons. Later, Zhang discovered that a mobile phone simulator could be installed on his computer, which enabled him to send an SOS email to his family. With growing media attention to his plight at home, the syndicate began to find him a troublesome case and agreed to free him after paying a ransom of 59,000 yuan, down from 120,000 yuan previously demanded.)
Zhang: As my family had been unsuccessful in the money transfer, they threatened to sell me to other syndicates. I was really worried because it would have taken years for me to get out. I was in despair, but media reports had achieved some effect.
CNR: What kind of park was it? Was the local police department aware of it?
Zhang: They were under the control of local warlords who served as their protectors.
(After pledging that he had entered the park of his own free will and with certain documents signed and videotaped, Zhang was transported to the Thai-Myanmar border in a vehicle provided by the park. When he arrived in Thailand, he was moved to another vehicle and put in a Thai hotel. Zhang spent all his money on a mobile phone and a SIM card and contacted the Chinese embassy. He was turned over to the local immigration bureau as he had overstayed the time specified on his visa. After ten days of formalities, Zhang arrived at Pudong International Airport at 6am on September 5.)
(Through CNR, Zhang expressed his gratitude to all who had expressed concern for him and expressed the hope that relevant authorities would crack down on illegal cross-border recruitment and publicize the pitfalls involved.)
Zhang: I hope more people can avoid the mistakes I made. Some of my teachers and classmates are trying to find work for me. My own desire is to work as an editor in academic journals or in publicity for popular sciences.