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Southeast Asia is home to burgeoning social media crypto scams

Indian engineer Stephen Wesley was puzzled when he was asked to take a typing test during an interview for a graphic design job in Thailand – but put it out of his mind when he got the role.

ours after landing in Bangkok to start work in July, Wesley and seven other new recruits were instead ferried over the border into Myanmar where their phones and passports were taken, and they were put to work on online cryptocurrency scams.

“I spent up to 18 hours a day researching, typing messages, chatting with people on social media platforms, gaining their trust and encouraging them to invest in cryptocurrency,” said mR Wesley, 29, in a telephone interview.

Thousands of people, many with tech skills, have been lured by social media advertisements promising well-paid jobs in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, only to find themselves forced to defraud strangers worldwide via the internet.

Mr Wesley spent 45 days held captive at a compound in Myanmar’s southeastern border town of Myawaddy, and given a list of about 3,500 names that he had to contact via Facebook, Instagram or dating apps.

“We were trained on how to flirt, chat about hobbies, everyday routine, likes and dislikes. In roughly 15 days, the trust would be built and the client would be willing to take our advice on investing in crypto,” he said.

The cybercrime rings first emerged in Cambodia, but have since moved into other countries in the region and are targeting more tech-savvy workers, including from India and Malaysia.

Authorities in these countries and United Nations officials have said they are run by Chinese gangsters who control gambling across southeast Asia and are making up for losses during the pandemic lockdowns.

The experts say the trafficked captives are held in large compounds in converted casinos in Cambodia, and in special economic zones in Myanmar and Laos.

“The gangs targeted skilled, tech-savvy workers who had lost jobs during the pandemic and were desperate, and fell for these bogus recruitment ads,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch.

“Authorities have been slow to respond, and in many cases these people are not being treated as victims of trafficking, but as criminals because they were caught up in these scams.”

Cybercrime has surged with the rise of digital platforms that brought easy access to personal data online as well as improved translation software and artificial intelligence (AI)-generated photos that help scammers to create fake personas.

The scam that Mr Wesley and others were forced into is known as pig butchering, where a scammer builds trust with their victims over social media, messaging and dating apps, then pressures them to invest in bogus crypto or online trading schemes.

The term refers to the process by which scammers “feed their victims with promises of romance and riches” before cutting them off and taking their money, according to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, which traced its origins to China in 2019.

“People don’t realise it, but they do share a lot of information on social media platforms,” said Dhanya Menon, director of Avanzo Cyber Security Solutions in India, which advises firms on cyber security.

“If you follow someone’s social media for just 15 days, you will glean a lot of information about them,” she said, adding that cryptocurrency scams are on the rise because there is little awareness of how the virtual currency works.

India’s foreign ministry in September issued an advisory warning youth with technology skills of fake Thai jobs

Read More: Southeast Asia is home to burgeoning social media crypto scams

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