Have you ever received an unexpected text or WhatsApp message from a stranger? They may have had an attractive profile picture and started the conversation with “Hi.” Perhaps they claimed to be reaching out to someone other than you, but they nevertheless tried to strike up a conversation. Maybe you’ve been surprised when an online dating match turned into a conversation about a dubious investment opportunity. If anything like this has happened to you, you may have been targeted by an online “Pig Butcher,” an increasingly common type of online scammer. Pig butchers focus on developing relationships with victims before robbing them, gradually convincing them to place money in dubious online exchanges before pulling the rug from under them and vaporizing, never to be heard from again. By doing this, pig butchers have stolen sums ranging from low amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars from unwitting victims around the world. But in addition to the obvious exploitation involved with these scams, there is a hidden side that often involves human trafficking.
When you imagine the types of people conducting these scams, you might conjure an image of a crowded telemarketing office using scamming scripts or a rogue hacker exploiting victims through complex schemes. However, over the last few years the online scam industry has become increasingly intertwined with modern slavery. Organized crime organizations in Asia have started trafficking, transporting, and enslaving individuals from impoverished communities across the globe, forcing them to work long hours scamming victims. This surprisingly large phenomenon, termed cyber slavery, is the latest crisis at the intersection of technology and human trafficking.
Traffickers are recruiting victims from Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, and other countries through online job platforms and Facebook listings advertising computer jobs in Southeast Asia. These jobs, which offer generous salaries and health benefits, lure in vulnerable and desperate people, some of whom are college educated. Traffickers fly individuals interested in the job offer to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and other locations where they become victims of modern slavery. Victims’ documents are stolen, and they are placed into debt bondage, a form of labor exploitation in which victims incur debt related to their employment but cannot pay it back due to exorbitant hidden costs, predatory interest rates, and other factors. In the case of cyber slavery, these victims are forced to run online scams like the ones discussed above, entice players into online gambling and, in some cases, engage in sex work, with no way to escape.
In Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, it is often Chinese criminal syndicates trafficking and exploiting these victims, placing them in industrial-scale operations with chains of command that eerily parallel traditional corporate structures. Sales teams (scammers) find clients (victims) and convince them to invest in shady companies. Meanwhile, recruiters attract new scammers through fraudulent job postings and purchase other enslaved people through online slave markets on apps like Telegram. Managers handle the day-to-day business, ensuring that enslaved people who meet targets are rewarded and those who fail to meet expectations are tortured, abused, and sold online to other gangs. It is an open secret in some Cambodian cities that crime syndicates are running large compounds in casinos, office buildings, and, most infamously, a sprawling, ten-skyscraper complex in which hundreds of people are believed to be currently enslaved. Experts estimate the total number of victims to be between one and five hundred thousand, although data on the topic is scarce.
The Cambodian government has begun to crack down on these cyber slavery organizations by conducting raids around the country. Still, it is unknown how much of an impact this law enforcement intervention has made. Meanwhile, the Chinese government seems unwilling to take action against the Chinese organized crime organizations brazenly enslaving and trafficking mostly Southeast Asian victims.
Recently, international awareness of the nature and severity of this new form of modern slavery has been increasing. The scale of the cyber slavery taking place in Cambodia contributed to the U.S. State Department’s decision to downgrade Cambodia to Tier 3, the lowest possible rating, in its 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report. Spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia, Chad Roedemeier stated “The (2022 TIP) Report highlights online scam operations and associated trafficking crimes, along with the endemic corruption and lack of political will that limits progress in holding traffickers accountable.”
The emergence of cyber slavery as a growing problem, let alone such a massive one, only recently entered the consciousness of anti-trafficking researchers and advocates. The phenomenon illustrates the importance of a technologically-informed counter-trafficking strategy. In a rapidly and continually changing technological landscape, traffickers are innovative and use established and emerging technology to traffick and enslave people for profit. To effectively respond to the challenge of this ever-shifting landscape, governments and researchers must be agile and resourceful like the traffickers, leveraging technology to increase the efficacy of their anti-trafficking measures. To achieve this, the body of scholarship at the intersection of technology and human trafficking must continue to expand.
As a global society, we must all continue to enhance our understanding of the role emerging technologies play in the proliferation of modern slavery as well as strengthen our capacity to use technology to prevent human trafficking. “The scope of these operations, and the impunity they enjoy to commit rights abuses, are a shocking and unacceptable indictment of the lawlessness prevalent under dictatorial rule in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and elsewhere.” said Phil Robertson, Asia director for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. That is why it is imperative we do all we can to raise awareness about this growing crisis to prevent more victims from being recruited through false promises of a good job and to help those currently trapped in modern cyber-slavery gain their freedom.
You can read more about cyber slavery and other human trafficking issues in South Asia in the HTS South Asia Research Guide.
Brendan Hyatt is a Research Fellow at Human Trafficking Search. In the past, Brendan has researched climate change and disability inclusion for the Environmental Law Institute and far-right extremism for the Stimson Center. Twitter: @BrendanHyatt4