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Trapped in Myanmar: How tech grads from TN were forced to work for a crypto-scam

The 13 rescued people had spent several lakhs and arrived in Thailand in the belief that they would be working jobs such as data-entry or customer care and earn at least Rs 80,000. Instead, they were smuggled into Myanmar.

By all accounts, Sofia Fernandez and Jeslin Mathew led glamorous lives. These two Chinese women were models and lived a lavish life. They went out for coffee, ate fancy meals and took selfies in trendy clothes. And they posted it all on Instagram, where it drew a lot of attention from appreciative men. Except, the Instagram accounts – @sofiafernandez and @jeslinmathew175 – were being maintained by Karthik, a young tech graduate from Tamil Nadu. While the life that ‘Sofia’ and ‘Jeslin’ had online was that of fashionable and modern young Chinese women leading luxurious lives, Karthik was sharing a 10×14 room with seven others, sleeping in bunk beds and a single toilet between them. “We were given a folder of such photos and a very strict schedule to post them, so the profiles looked believable,” Karthik told TNM.

Karthik’s job was to pretend to be either one of these models and chat up men until he built enough trust to give him their personal phone numbers. Then the chat would move to WhatsApp or Telegram where a fake friendship based on lies about living in Europe or the USA, a love-story of now-divorced biracial parents, was spun. Speaking to TNM, Karthik said that these chats were closely monitored by their ‘recruiters’ and the endgame was to get the men to invest money in cryptocurrency and bitcoin apps called Binance and Marathon. “As soon as recruiters saw that the conversation had got to a place where enough trust had been built, they would take over the chat in order to talk the conned men into repeatedly investing in the apps.”

While Binance was an app easily available for download, Arul Murugan, another victim, added that Marathon was developed by their recruiters. “The app appears to show increasing profits, which in turn entices the targets to put in more money. Once the targets have invested large sums of money, they are blocked from the app, losing all of it,” he said.

Both Karthik and Arul said that the targets were found through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even dating apps. Initial chats with the men helped the recruiters understand the financial background of the targets. Apart from the photos posted of fictitious attractive women to draw them into chats, the illegal recruiters had developed a software to change location settings, so that if a target was in California, then the location of the ‘model’ would also appear to be at least somewhere in the US.

Myanmar Returnees
Recruiters giving training inside the camp (Special Arrangement) 

Karthik and Arul were among the 13 people, including a woman, who were rescued and brought back to India on October 5 by the Tamil Nadu government. They had spent 45 days in Myanmar, where they had lived a life of little more than bonded labour, intimidation and fear. Trapped in Myawaddy, pockets of which, The Indian Express points out, are currently under the control of armed rebels, their lives were excruciating.

Almost all the rescued men and women were from smaller cities of Tamil Nadu and while most of them were in their 20s, a couple of them were in their 40s as well. While most of them had completed their diploma, four of the rescued had completed their civil engineering degree and were looking for work. These people had spent several lakhs and arrived in Thailand in the belief that they would be working jobs such as data-entry or customer care and earn at least Rs 80,000. Instead, they were smuggled across the border into Myanmar only to discover that they had been “bought” for USD 5,000 (about Rs 4 lakh). The only way out, their so-called recruiters told them, was to buy their own freedom. This ordeal began on July 1. Arul said that they found people of Malaysian, Ethiopian and Chinese origin working there, all of whom were enduring the same degree of mistreatment.

Some of the 13 victims found Facebook posts regarding job opportunities in Dubai and Thailand and applied directly. Others, like Shankar, went through an agent. In Shankar’s case, the agent was a man named ‘Karaikudi’ Bala who also claimed to be working as a driver in Dubai. “I arrived in Dubai through Karaikudi Bala to work as a backend customer service executive at a bank for a salary of Rs 50,000. But the job did not materialise. I waited for nearly three months on a visitor visa. Then Bala approached me saying, I would get a Rs 30,000 hike if I was willing to relocate to Thailand. With few options left, I agreed,” Shankar recalled.

Myanmar Returnees
Indians and other foreigners were sent to the immigration jail in Thailand (Special Arrangement) 

The company that recruited Karthik, Arul and Shankar, was called Hongtu Property. They were even issued a blue-coloured ID card with this company’s name on it. “The company is most likely fake with fake credentials, but the ID card was to establish a strict hierarchy within the camp. All of us had blue-coloured ID cards. So did the Chinese man who gave us our daily instructions and was our immediate supervisor. He called himself Saiho. There were two others with red ID cards. There was also a translator on site. The red ID card men were higher up in the organisation. They were free to go in and out of the camp as they pleased,” Karthik said.

Arul, who shared a photo of his ID card, pointed out that all the names printed on the card of the 13 victims were fake. “And no one knew the actual names of our recruiters. Our phones were reset to factory settings as soon as we reached the camp. But, I managed to upload a few photos of the ID cards and trainers to my mail before that,” Arul said. This was also when they came to know that they were in Myanmar and not in Thailand as they had assumed up to that point.

Karthik insisted that the men they dealt with were predominantly Chinese. “We had to keep communicating through Google translate, despite the person working there as translator. So, it was clear what language we were using. The red ID card men would conduct surprise spot checks on our work. If anything went wrong, they would humiliate us. It was mental torture,” he related.

 Mistakes were costly, in this camp. Of course neither of the two women or the others who were the faces of similar fake accounts existed in real life. At least not in the way the men who spoke to them believed they were. Karthik described an incident of punishment doled out to two men who forgot to post a photo to Instagram on schedule. “They were given the choice of standing outside for an hour or going without lunch or agreeing to a pay cut. They chose to stand outside, but they were made to stand for at least two hours instead,” he recalled. After that, things became worse for all of them. Initially, they had 12 hour shifts starting at 6 pm. After this mistake, their work hours were increased to 14 hours, and it soon became 16 hours. In the remaining 8 hours, they had to sleep, eat, take a break in between and use the toilet. Arul said their recruiters threatened to give them electric shocks and forced them to do frog jumps even for small mistakes.

“The women who posed for those photos were in the camp with us. They were the ones made to go through photo shoots and selfies to trick the men we were speaking to,” added Karthik. He also said that the women were told to take photos of themselves in night clothes before going to bed or pretending to have a nice day-out and brushing their teeth. Whatever it took to make the profiles look convincing. “The minute one of the conned men wanted to get on a video call, the woman whose photos I was using would be told to take over the chat. But in reality, I think they were trapped just like us, conned into believing they were getting a good job in a foreign country,” Karthik observed.

Thirteen of these victims landed in Tamil Nadu, in the early hours of October 5. The return to their homes was an arduous journey across a river, dense forests, international borders and the alleged bureaucratic apathy of the Indian embassies in Myanmar and Thailand. Their rescue from the crypto-camp in Myawaddy was facilitated by the Myanmar army who later abandoned them at the country’s border with Thailand. As soon as they crossed over, the Thai army arrested them and handed them over to the immigration police, who in turn took them to the local police in Mae Sot. They were jailed in the station before being transferred to the Human Trafficking Department who conducted a 15-day investigation.

Despite multiple appeals to the Indian Embassy in Thailand, they were simply told to “go through procedure,” alleged Arul and Karthik. Their sole comfort came from the members of the Tamil community, who provided food while they were at the detention centre. It was only once their media appeal was seen by the Tamil Nadu government that the process of bringing them home finally began. While each of the victims that TNM spoke to were happy about having made it home finally, they are now concerned about their uncertain future, given their circumstances.

*All names have been changed to protect their identities

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