June 8, 2023
SINGAPORE – Tens of thousands of people have been lured to criminal hubs in South-east Asia through fake job offers posted by scam syndicates in large-scale human trafficking schemes.
Interpol on Wednesday issued an Orange Notice to its 195 member countries on what it called a “global human trafficking crisis”. The warning means there is a serious and imminent threat to public safety. In the warning, Interpol said criminal groups lure victims on social networks and recruitment sites with false promises of lucrative job opportunities.
These people are then kidnapped and detained in inhuman living conditions, and often beaten and sexually abused.
They are also forced into criminal activities, including investment fraud, love scams and frauds linked to cryptocurrency investing and online gambling.
Acting coordinator of Interpol’s Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling Unit, Mr Isaac Espinoza, told The Straits Times on Wednesday that the groups are exploiting people who lost their jobs amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It is challenging a lot of preconceptions of human trafficking, (that) victims are people who are in very vulnerable situations… These criminal groups are now targeting people who are actually highly qualified, people who have university degrees, who are trained in IT and who are tech-savvy,” he said, adding that anyone can fall victim.
Mr Espinoza added: “As the authorities started taking action and raiding the centres and disrupting the business, they instantly adapted and started moving to other neighbouring countries, to Myanmar, to Laos.”
The first reports of the scheme came in 2021, and Interpol said it has since observed the growing criminal phenomenon of large-scale human trafficking where victims are forced to commit cyber-enabled financial crime on an industrial scale.
In the early stages, Interpol said the victims were Mandarin-speaking people from China, Malaysia, Thailand or Singapore, who were enticed to travel to other countries in the region for work.
Mr Espinoza said that English-speaking victims have now been targeted as well.
The online scam centres were initially concentrated in Cambodia, but were later also identified in Laos and Myanmar. Hubs have since been located in at least four more Asian countries.
There is also evidence that the modus operandi is being replicated in other regions such as West Africa, said Interpol.
In a statement, Interpol secretary general Jurgen Stock said what began as a regional crime threat has become a global human trafficking crisis.
“Just about anyone in the world could fall victim to either the human trafficking or the online scams carried out through these criminal hubs. Much stronger international police cooperation is needed to stop this crime trend from spreading further,” he added.
Mr Espinoza said job seekers should check if the purported recruiters have a presence in the place they claim the job is in.
They should also look out for red flags – like when the purported hirer asks for job interviews in countries different from where the job is promised.
“There are certain subtle incoherencies that are key to finding out that the job is not as legitimate as it might look,” he said, adding that scammers might use different company names on different sites.
They may also use phone numbers with area codes where the company does not have a presence.
ST has contacted the Singapore Police Force to ascertain if there are reports of Singaporeans who have been kept against their will overseas by these criminal groups.
The issue was raised in Parliament in 2022. MP Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked if there were Singaporeans who have been reported missing after being attracted to jobs in Cambodia and Myanmar, and who are suspected to be kidnapped to work for a scam syndicate there, while MP Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) asked if Singapore is intending to partner other countries in the region to tackle the issue.
In written replies, Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said that since 2021, there had been one police report made by a man who said he had heard from another party that there were Singaporean victims possibly being kept against their will in Myanmar to work for scam syndicates.
The man did not speak to the Singaporeans and did not have any other information on their identities. Mr Shanmugam said SPF referred the case to the Myanmar police, adding that the police here would monitor the situation.
He also said that Singapore participates in various regional efforts to discuss cooperation in combating transnational crime, including scams and human trafficking.