pig butchering scam cambodia
Chinese restaurants in Phnom Penh. Scam operations have proliferated in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar since the start of the pandemic, with stories emerging over recent months of workers being trafficked, imprisoned, beaten and forced to scam. Photo: Alastair McCready

From Industrial-Scale Scam Centers, Trafficking Victims Are Being Forced to Steal Billions

Thousands of imprisoned and abused workers are propping up Southeast Asia’s ‘pig butchering’ industry, an online fraud emptying bank accounts across the world.

Additional reporting by Koh Ewe and Gavin Butler 

This story contains accounts of physical abuse and human trafficking. 

Shortly after 2 o’clock one Friday afternoon, a notification popped up on Cindy Tsai’s phone. It was a WhatsApp message from an unknown number, simply stating, “Hello.” 

Advertisement

Tsai ignored it. Three hours later, another message: “Are you Linda from the pet store?” She felt she should respond. 

“I have never gotten a wrong message on my U.S. WhatsApp,” she told VICE World News from her Boston home. “I thought it was legitimate. I came back and said, ‘Sorry, wrong number.’” 

That three-word message, delivered as a courtesy to the individual on the other end, would prove the most costly she’s ever sent. Within two months, she would lose more money than the average American earns in a lifetime

“I met my scammer on October 15, 2021,” she said of that Friday exchange. “All said and done, I lost about $2.5 million.” 

What unfolded was an online quasi-romantic relationship with an intelligent, handsome younger man named Jimmy, whom she believed lived in Los Angeles. Their daily conversations spanned life, sports, economics, literature—and, eventually, cryptocurrency. 

After a tentative start buying and selling Ethereum through a website Jimmy recommended, initial profits prompted Tsai to take the plunge, buying vast quantities of the cryptocurrency. She had invested huge sums by the time the crypto investment platform alerted her to an unending labyrinth of audits, fees, and taxes she’d have to navigate in order to cash out. 

Advertisement

But it was all a hoax—the platform wasn’t real, the money was gone, and the audits were attempts to squeeze those final thousands out of Tsai. (She provided VICE World News with financial statements showing her losses.) 

Her losses represent a strikingly high figure, made more notable by the fact that Tsai is a successful project finance lawyer. But what she didn’t know at the time was that she had become ensnared in a sophisticated scam that has exploded over the past 18 months, one responsible for the theft of billions of dollars worldwide.

She Thought a Job Was Waiting for Her in Europe. Then She Met Her Trafficker.

From industrial-scale scam centers in Southeast Asia, criminal syndicates have spent the pandemic perfecting an intricate romance-meets-investment fraud called Shāzhūpán (pig butchering scams). Teams of scammers use sophisticated scripts to “fatten up” their targets, grooming individuals like Tsai and enticing them into investment schemes increasingly centered on cryptocurrency, before going in for the “slaughter” and stealing their money.  

But while this narrative of duped victim and online predator is as old as the internet, the scale of human suffering sustaining pig butchering is unprecedented in the world of online scamming. Propping up the industry are thousands of people trapped in a cycle of human trafficking, debt, forced labor, and violence; people from across the region lured by fake job adverts to scam centers in Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia, where they’re forced to perpetrate the kind of fraud used on Tsai. 

Advertisement

It’s the structures underpinning pig butchering that one NGO worker told VICE World News is creating a “humanitarian crisis.” Piecing together the global harm that has come with the industry’s rise, VICE World News spoke with those on all sides of the scam: individuals robbed of their life savings and plunged into debt, as well as those on the other side of the screen, imprisoned victims forced to groom others and scam. 

In Tsai’s case, her grooming by Jimmy was catalyzed by a devastating series of life events. In September, a month before they began chatting, Tsai was told by doctors that she had terminal gastric cancer. Then, weeks later, she officially parted ways with her husband.

“I was definitely more vulnerable than I ever had been,” Tsai said, describing how Jimmy became a comforting presence. “It was touching… When I had my immunotherapy appointments, they were there, talking to me. When I was getting my allergy test, they were there.” 

“They were there the entire time.”

Cindy Tsai's scammers preyed on her vulnerability, as she went through chemotherapy for her terminal cancer. Photo: Cindy Tsai

Cindy Tsai's scammers preyed on her vulnerability, as she went through chemotherapy for her terminal cancer. Photo: Cindy Tsai

But even in a case as clear-cut as Tsai’s—a terminally ill woman robbed of millions of dollars—this largely novel dynamic of victims scamming victims complicates the narrative. Rather than pushing to recover her funds or bring her scammers to justice in the time she has left, Tsai’s attention has instead turned to the other side of the industry. 

“The immunotherapy has controlled the spread of the cancer, but am I ever going to be cured? No,” she said. “In the meantime I’m doing what I can to try to help victims. My focus right now is really on the trafficking victims.” 

Advertisement

Lu Xiangri is one figure working on the front line assisting trafficking victims in Cambodia, where scam operations have proliferated at a fast rate over the past two and a half years. He assists at what is for all intents and purposes a safe house in Phnom Penh for those who’ve escaped scam centers, but aren’t able to immediately return home. 

A gold sign behind the desk advertises hourly rates of $15, as well as mahjong rooms at $25, but paying customers are few and far between at the run-down hotel down a dingy alley in the Cambodian capital. Instead, residents within the repurposed hotel are around 30 Chinese victims, biding their time until they can raise enough money to leave the country. 

“They are all waiting to go home,” Lu told VICE World News through a translator. “Nobody dares to go out. They are scared that if they go out, they will get kidnapped back into the scam compound.” 

At a safe house on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, victims who have fled scam centers are hiding out until they are able to return home. Photo: Alastair McCready

At a safe house on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, victims who have fled scam centers are hiding out until they are able to return home. Photo: Alastair McCready

Lu, from southern China, was himself held inside a scam center in early October last year. He had applied for a job on the recommendation of a friend as his restaurant in Cambodia was hit hard during the pandemic. Realizing the nature of the work once inside, he called local police seeking help and was released after 10 days. 

After posting about his experience on Facebook, he was met with a flood of responses from others. This led him to join the Chinese-Cambodia Charity Team, a volunteer-run group that until recently was one of the very few helping scam center victims on the ground in Cambodia. The requests for help haven’t stopped in the months since. 

Advertisement

“I don’t have a choice, these people tell me every day that they don’t want to be a scammer anymore,” Lu said. “If they can’t scam anyone, they are beaten.” 

Lu estimates that he and other volunteers have helped rescue at least 50 people—many from mainland China, but also Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia—from scam compounds since November. When contacted, he collects their personal information, where they are being held and why they want to be rescued, before reporting their cases to authorities. 

“If we don’t save them, they will die,” he said. “We just want to see them go back home alive.” 

Lu’s fears are well founded. The past year has seen a stream of news reports detailing slave labor conditions, threats of rape, and extreme violence perpetrated against victims inside scam compounds in Cambodia. Video footage has emerged showing young men being imprisoned, beaten, and tased at the hands of their captors. More concerning are a spate of mysterious deaths near areas known to host scam operations—most recently last week.

Advertisement

Bilce Tan feared he would succumb to the same fate during his ill-fated stint in Cambodia last month. 

“Those three weeks were like a Hollywood movie,” the Malaysian man told VICE World News. “I was scared every day, I was frightened every day. But I still needed to be very clear in my mind.”

“I know that if I did something stupid, I would die, I would not be able to see my parents anymore.” 

It was in April when Tan spotted an advert for a team leader role in Cambodia paying 12,000 Malaysian ringgit a month, around $2,700. He had heard rumors about scam centers, but felt reassured that the advert, posted by an alleged Malaysian digital marketing firm, was vetted by the job site. Two video interviews later, he was on a flight to Phnom Penh. 

Tan’s unease began almost immediately. He was met at the airport by four men who put him in their car and told him not to ask questions on the five-hour drive to Sihanoukville. The once-sleepy town on Cambodia’s southern coast was transformed around 2016 by a Chinese-led construction boom which saw more than 100 casinos built catering to tourists from mainland China, where gambling is illegal. Today a half-finished city of construction sites and skyscrapers, Sihanoukville’s associations with criminality grew after its economy was ravaged by Cambodia’s 2019 online gambling ban, and then the pandemic. 

Advertisement

Over the past two and a half years, reports suggest businesses that once earned their money from gambling or tourism have now pivoted toward hosting nefarious activities within their walls, including online scams. This includes, Tan says, the Victory Paradise Resort and Casino, the hilltop hotel with views of Sihanoukville where the alleged digital marketing firm was located.

The entrance to Victory Paradise Resort. Video: Bilce Tan

The job advert promised “surrounding facilities… complete [with] massage therapy, gymnasium, football field, and badminton courts.” In reality, the paradise resort, which opened just before Sihanoukville’s crash, would become his de facto prison for three weeks. Tan says his passport was confiscated and gun-wielding men across the complex prevented him from leaving. The bait-and-switch with the nature of the work became immediately clear. 

“When they assigned me a job, it was totally different from what I had discussed with them,” he said. 

For his new role, Tan says he was given two days training to familiarize himself with intricate scripts he’d use to build a rapport with strangers online. He would also be taught to navigate different platforms used to part people from their money—including a fake gambling website, as well as a bogus crypto investment platform like the one used to dupe the lawyer Tsai. 

Advertisement

“[My] task was to do a lot of searching and start internet conversations with strangers. I need to find my prospects on Facebook, on Instagram,” he said, describing a room of around 10 people doing the same for 15-plus hours a day, all of their screens linked up to a central one where a supervisor monitored their conversations. 

“We would try to lead them, teach them how to open an account on USDT [Tether crypto coin] and top up this account with money,” he said. “Currently the scammers are doing a lot with this. USDT is untraceable; the government and interpol aren’t able to trace the money.” 

“The scammers will try to get any last payments out of the victims by exploiting the sunk cost fallacy and dangling huge profits in front of them.”

While Tan says he never successfully cheated anyone, the mechanics of the scam he describes match the experiences of scammed victims VICE World News interviewed. Justin Maile, investigation partner manager at Chainalysis, a leading blockchain data firm, described pig butchering criminal operations as akin to legitimate businesses with “separate departments for training, HR, operations, [and] laundering.” 

“They use extensive playbooks with detailed strategies to relate to and win over victims of all demographics,” he told VICE World News. “They often have fake websites built to demo with fake data showing huge profits… Before the ‘butchering', these groups will allow small withdrawals or send the victim small profits to make them believe the platform is legitimate.” 

Advertisement

Maile also described a process identical to that experienced by Tsai, where victims are “led on for weeks or months before finally stealing the funds.”  

“Once the victim starts getting skeptical or tries to withdraw their funds, they are often told that they have to pay tax on the gains before funds can be unlocked,” he said. “The scammers will try to get any last payments out of the victims by exploiting the sunk cost fallacy and dangling huge profits in front of them.” 

Tan says his center was run by Malaysians, but also within the resort were major Chinese and Myanmar–run operations. While he avoided the kind of severe physical abuse experienced by others, Tan said his refusal to cooperate resulted in him having guns pointed at him, being locked in rooms for days and having his phone confiscated, as well as threats to sell him to another center in Myanmar where conditions are far worse.

Uncooperative workers are known to be sold between scam operations for thousands of dollars—a trade sometimes taking place through barely disguised messages on Telegram channels open to the public. One seller contacted by VICE World News offered to deliver workers to Phnom Penh for $2,000. One rescued victim, who requested total anonymity, told VICE World News he had been sold between centers twice. 

Advertisement

In late May, Tan managed a daring escape from his compound, the details of which he requested be kept secret due to fears about implicating those who helped. VICE World News couldn’t independently verify Tan’s account, but he provided his entry and exit stamps for Cambodia, as well as his job offer, the employee handbook, and supporting videos and photos showing he was in the country, employed by the alleged digital marketing firm, and at the resort. 

Victory Paradise Resort did not respond to requests for comment. Another victim told VICE World News they worked in the resort, where they were forced to scam and were physically abused. They requested that no details of their case were made public due to fears over their safety. 

VICE World News also reached out to the Malaysian digital marketing firm which acknowledged receipt of questions but declined to answer. 

Now back in his home on the Malaysian island of Penang, Tan has gone public with his story, and has received a threat of legal action and instructions to publicly recant his story by a member of the company. 

With few options, he has turned to the Global Anti-Scam Organization (GASO). The volunteer-run group aids in the rescue and support of trafficked victims like Tan, while also representing a growing list of more than 1,800 scammed victims worldwide like Tsai. 

“Our line of work is really unique,” said the group’s founder, Jess, a Singaporean woman in her 30s who asked for a pseudonym due to fears of being targeted by criminal syndicates for her work. “We want to support the victims of the scam, we want to support victims of human trafficking, and we want to do investigations to find justice. Nobody has ever done this.” 

Advertisement

Jess founded GASO in June 2021 when she became a victim of pig butchering after matching a man on dating app Tinder. She says her scammer moulded himself into her ideal man, then “gaslit” her into putting $16,000 of her money into a fake crypto investment website. 

“Pig butchering is so sophisticated,” she said. “I thought there was no way that I could ever get scammed.” 

“[But] I’m a very curious person. If I get scammed, I want to know who scammed me, and I will bite you until I get what I want, until I get my answers,” she added. “I want to know how I die; I’m not going to just die—I want to know who killed me.” 

Jess would confront her scammer, forming a more candid relationship with him and learning the mechanics of pig butchering. The success of this approach would also prove the inception point for what has evolved into a global movement, with Jess now heading a team of 80 volunteers, all scam victims looking for answers. 

GASO founder Jess in Phnom Penh. She visited Cambodia in June to assist in the rescue of trafficking victims. Photo: Alastair McCready

GASO founder Jess in Phnom Penh. She visited Cambodia in June to assist in the rescue of trafficking victims. Photo: Alastair McCready

Brian is one volunteer conducting investigations for GASO as part of a wider team. The 46-year-old Tennessee resident, who has requested the use of only his first name, became involved after losing $190,000 to a crypto-based pig butchering scam after developing a business relationship with someone on LinkedIn last August. Like most GASO volunteers, 60 percent of whom are women and mostly college educated, he doesn’t fit the classic profile of a scam victim. Brian holds a double master’s degree in business, works in logistics, owns multiple businesses and, as he puts it, has always “had a knack to just dive in and solve problems.” 

Advertisement

Now, he’s turning that knack for problem solving towards pig butchering. Since late 2021, he’s been tracking crypto wallet addresses and performing blockchain analysis, something he says has led him to a major money launderer in Cambodia. He also uses methods to pinpoint scammers’ locations, the specifics of which he asked not be published. This is all information GASO shares with the FBI at regular meetings, he says.  

Brian wears “multiple hats” to engage scammers, using various forms of “scam baiting” to unearth information, including posing as a scammer himself, posing as a victim, and even “turning” unwilling scammers who wish to escape.

“They tell me: ‘I don’t want to do this; can you help me get out? It’s dangerous here, I’m going to get killed if they find me talking about this. I’m going to get tasered,’” Brian said, later sending screenshots of his conversations as they unfold in real-time.

“They take videos and pictures inside the compound. They give me inside information, what building number they’re in.” GASO assists in rescuing trafficked victims by contacting embassies and local law enforcement. 

A conversation between Brian and a trafficking victim. Screenshot supplied

Given the nebulous nature of pig butchering and crypto generally, the exact sums of money being stolen by syndicates are hard to gauge. GASO provided their latest statistics showing the organization alone has recorded a total loss of more than $285 million across 1,652 victims worldwide, at an average of $173,000 per victim. 

Advertisement

“We’ve got victims who have lost $1.6 million, $3.5 million, $1.2 million, $1.8 million,” Brian said. “We’re talking millions and millions of dollars that victims have lost.” 

Streamlining this theft is cryptocurrency, which has become a potent tool for criminal groups to steal and launder huge sums of cash with relative ease due to its decentralized nature. Chainalysis’ 2022 Crypto Crime Report said $7.7 billion was stolen using crypto scams worldwide in 2021, an 81 percent increase over 2020, though the organization doesn’t break down the proportion of those from pig butchering.

But theft into the billions jibes with observations on the ground in Cambodia. Jacob Sims, Cambodia director for International Justice Mission, an INGO that works with victims of human trafficking and forced labor, has received rough estimates of daily profits from those who have escaped scam centers.

“From what we are hearing, on average a worker in these compounds generates $300-400 per day in profit for their employer,” he told VICE World News, noting that since recording their first case in May 2021, scam center victims have become a large part of IJM’s work.

“People are coming to us desperate for immediate help,” he said. “What is going on inside these scamming compounds feels like a true humanitarian crisis.”

Advertisement

While figures on the number of people in scam centers in Cambodia is unknown, best estimates pieced together from various sources point to the tens of thousands across scam centers in Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh, and sites in border regions Poipet and Bavet. In April, Thailand’s assistant national police commissioner said 800 Thai citizens had been rescued from scam centers in Cambodia in recent months, with a further 1,000 citizens still trapped across the country. One Vietnamese worker estimated 300 of his compatriots were held on just one floor in a tall office block hosting scam operations. 

Tan estimated that within Victory Paradise Resort alone there were 7,000 people, the majority from mainland China, but also Indonesians, Singaporeans and Filipinos. According to the Khmer Times, one 10-building complex of high-rises in Sihanoukville, known as The China Project, holds between 8,000 to 10,000 people participating in various scams—a workforce that would generate profits around the $1 billion mark each year at $300 per worker per day.

Advertisement
A photo from inside a scam center in Cambodia. The group chat on the computer screen provides scamming tips. Photo: Chinese-Cambodia Charity Team

A photo from inside a scam center in Cambodia. The group chat on the computer screen provides scamming tips. Photo: Chinese-Cambodia Charity Team

(Unclear is the proportion of workers held against their will, with the more successful and compliant scammers rewarded well for their work. Tan estimated that half of those inside Victory Paradise Resort were there willingly, while an anonymous source estimated 60 percent of workers at his center were there voluntarily.)

Adding to these figures are major operations elsewhere in the region. In early July, Lao officials announced that over the past year they had rescued over 500 victims of human trafficking from one special economic zone (SEZ) operating within the Golden Triangle, the drug-riddled border region near Myanmar and Thailand. 

Since 2007, this Chinese-owned SEZ, home to the notorious Kings Romans Casino, has become an enclave of criminality and a hotbed for human, wildlife and drug trafficking. Like its Sihanoukville counterparts, it has pivoted to scam center operations since the pandemic. As the zone is policed by private security forces and hard to enter for Lao authorities, the 500 rescued victims are likely a fraction of the total inside.

Advertisement

In Myanmar, near the town of Myawaddy on the Thai border, Shwe Kokko is another Chinese-funded enclave with a reputation for criminality. The $15 billion mega-development emerged in 2018 and set out to be a playground for gamblers, equipped with vast luxury hotels and entertainment complexes. But the pandemic has seen it pivot to large-scale scam operations, with stories of abuse emerging from victims trafficked to the junta-backed “new city” in recent months, with one rescued victim estimating 1,000 Malaysians alone in his scam center. 

The origins of this potentially multibillion dollar industry remain murky. But since 2011, there have been sporadic reports of raids on Voice over Internet Protocol scams in Cambodia, as Chinese and Taiwanese citizens took advantage of relaxed visas and lax law enforcement to run crude and small-scale extortion rings targeting their home countries. 

Late 2017 saw the first report of an operation closer resembling the industry seen today, as more than 200 Chinese scammers were found committing unspecified online fraud in a Phnom Penh residential building filled with desks and laptops. Around this time, more Chinese criminal groups were setting up shop in Southeast Asia, pushed out by the Chinese Communist Party’s 2018 organized crime busts and the ramping up of its crypto crackdown. By 2019, the term Shāzhūpán was trending, with Chinese authorities listing it as one of the top ten new words in Chinese media. 

Advertisement

But it was the unprecedented conditions of early 2020 that provided fertile ground for pig butchering to grow into the mammoth industry seen today. It was then that the multibillion dollar Chinese gambling tourism industry in Southeast Asia suffered the double blow of COVID-19 and Cambodia’s 2019 online gambling ban. With the world locked down, real estate once catering to tourism and betting in Sihanoukville was repurposed for online scam operations, with similar shifts at casinos in Myanmar and Laos. 

A crucial final piece to the puzzle was the pandemic’s economic hit on average workers, creating a desperate workforce enticed by adverts promising well-paid customer service jobs in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. This is a timeline that aligns with conversations Brian has had with those on the inside. 

“Talking to a lot of the scammers, they tell me I’ve been here for two years, two and a half years, since this place opened,” Brian said. He added that the scam really hit its stride in late 2021. “The majority of people being scammed were probably between June and November to December last year.” 

A shop sign advertising stablecoin USDT in Phnom Penh. Photo: Alastair McCready

A shop sign advertising stablecoin USDT in Phnom Penh. Photo: Alastair McCready

Awareness of the scam has slowed the flood of new scammed victims in recent months, but Brian says it's still thriving. Enabling this continued success means the regular shifting of targets and methods. Early scam activity targeted victims in China and Taiwan, before moving into countries like Singapore, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia, while the past ten months has seen a growing number of cases further afield in places like the U.S. and Europe. 

Advertisement

“Formerly largely contained to APAC [Asia-Pacific], these criminal groups have expanded operations to target wealthy Western investors for romance scams and novices to the crypto space,” said Maile of Chainalysis. 

Grassroots support networks are forming around the growing number of Western victims. One Facebook group VICE World News was given access to numbered 271 members at the time of writing; tallies show U.S.-based victims form the large majority, with Canadians and Europeans making up much of the rest, and a small minority from Asia. The group’s timeline is populated by people sharing tales of loss, money recovery schemes, crypto scams, and more recently the great crypto crash—a crisis looming over those engaged in legal battles, holding out hope of recovering losses. 

Todd Slavant founded the group in December after being scammed out of $53,000 and then struggling to find information about what he had fallen victim to. He pegs the average loss in the group at $100,000 per person, a figure that places the collective loss at upwards of $26 million. 

“We’ve got two or three people who lost over a million dollars,” he told VICE World News. 

Advertisement

“I’m a widower; I lost my wife in 2020… I was getting ready to get back into the field, dip my foot in the dating pool. Then [the scammer] came along, and she seemed interesting and caught my attention.”

George is in that million-plus band. In his 60s and from Rhode Island, he asked for a pseudonym as he hasn’t gone public about his losses. He met his scammer in October on Instagram, and what started as a romantic relationship with a woman he believed was in Singapore evolved as crypto was introduced a few weeks in. 

George initially deposited $2,000 into a wallet on Coinbase, a legitimate platform, and connected it to a fraudulent crypto platform she recommended. He enjoyed initial success, as all victims do, and watched earnings steadily trickle through on elaborately designed charts, all while being able to withdraw his earnings. By Dec. 23, he was in for $100,000—this is when his scammers flipped the switch. 

“All of a sudden, at the end of that day, I went to go check my balance [on Coinbase], and I was like: ‘Where did my money go?’” he told VICE World News. Unbeknownst to George, his scammers had tricked him into giving them total access to his Coinbase wallet. 

“I went over to the mining app and saw the balance had increased over there.” 

With his money now stored on this fraudulent website, he was made to traverse the same never-ending series of taxes, audits, and fees that had ensnared Tsai. Over the next six weeks, George would throw good money after bad into the fraudulent website. By early February, he had cleared out his retirement fund, remortgaged his home, and taken out substantial personal loans. 

Advertisement

“I was trying to figure out, do I sacrifice what I’ve put in and walk away, or do I chase and try to get my money back. Silly me, I decided option B,” he said. “Given everything that’s happened since, I would’ve gladly walked away from that $100,000-odd at that point and called it a day… that would’ve been a good outcome.” 

In total, he lost $1.5 million, as he went from imminent retirement on a healthy nest egg to deep in debt. His career, like Tsai’s, may come as a surprise: He’s a network engineer for an educational institution, but also like Tsai, his personal circumstances very likely contributed to his susceptibility to being scammed. 

“I’m a widower; I lost my wife in 2020,” he said, explaining that his partner lost her two-year battle with lung cancer as the pandemic began. “I was getting ready to get back into the field, dip my foot in the dating pool. Then [the scammer] came along, and she seemed interesting and caught my attention.” 

Despite the scale of his losses, George says he has given up hope of either recovering his funds or catching his scammers. A meaningful crackdown on pig butchering at its source doesn’t currently look likely either. Despite the occasional raid, operations in Laos and Myanmar—especially those hidden behind the curtain of self-governed SEZs—operate with virtual impunity.

In Cambodia, where the issue is arguably more widespread and brazen, systemic issues perpetuate the issue. Civil society groups in the country are sounding the alarm, with 36 local and international NGOs publishing a joint statement on “slave compounds” across Cambodia in March.

“A coordinated and targeted response is urgently needed from the Cambodian government, local and international organisations, UN bodies, and other governments to respond to the magnitude of this crisis,” the statement read. “The continued existence of these operations is a tragedy, and we are horrified that Cambodia is being used as a base for such inhumanity.”

Over the past year, the foreign embassies of countries across the region—including Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand—have also issued warnings to their citizens of the dangers of being lured into scam compounds in Cambodia. Most recently, in early July, the Chinese Embassy in Cambodia warned its citizens of falling into recruitment traps

Indeed, a firm call from Beijing to crackdown on these scams may offer one of the best chances of meaningful action in Cambodia, with the government receptive to past similar calls and close cooperation existing between the countries’ law enforcement to deport Chinese criminals. But given the vast revenues being generated by scammers, the prevalence of corruption, and concern over Cambodia’s growing reputation as a host for criminal activities, authorities often downplay the issue’s seriousness.

Long Dimanche, Deputy Governor of Preah Sihanouk Province, told VICE World News that “the province has seen a certain rise in illegal activities” since pandemic-related restrictions have waned and that “the image of such crimes existing in the province would hamper its international standing.”

“The Royal Government of Cambodia is determined to put an end to the crimes taking place in the Preah Sihanouk Province, and scam operations of any sort are no exception,” he said. “The Preah Sihanouk Provincial Administration has been well aware of the reports from various sources concerning the scam operations. Indeed, these alleged wrongdoings, if found guilty, are intolerable.” 

While raids are conducted in Cambodia, they aren’t currently at a scale to make a meaningful dent in the industry. On the ground, Lu and others working on this issue describe a spotty commitment to stamping out scam operations. When he attempts to report cases now, he’s often told that only the victim’s family members or embassy staff from their home country can file a police report. 

“These scam compounds have to have backing from local officials and police chiefs,” Lu said. “So in order to get into these compounds, you have to bribe the people there.”

When asked about allegations of corruption in Sihanoukville, Dimanche told VICE World News he “wished to reiterate that the provincial administration does not tolerate any practice involving double standards, especially bribery and corruption.”

“Redemption fees” can also be paid directly to the scammers to release someone, but according to Lu the going rate is as high as $20,000. (VICE World News saw an online transfer showing a redemption fee of this size, paid in USDT.)

The reality remains that Lu is treading a fine line with his work. In March, his colleague Chen Baorong was arrested for helping a Chinese national who claimed that he had his blood drawn seven times by his captors inside a scam center in Sihanoukville.

The Cambodian government declared the story fake news, with Baorong and three others who assisted the man slapped with charges of incitement and false declaration—a blow that effectively disbanded the Chinese-Cambodia Charity Team. The four now face a prison term of up to three years. Lu is under no illusions about his own position.

Lu Xiangri in Phnom Penh. Photo: Alastair McCready

Lu Xiangri in Phnom Penh. Photo: Alastair McCready

“I’m their prime target, but I haven’t actually done anything illegal. I always rescue people with the help of local police,” he said. “There’s no point in worrying about myself. I’m most worried about the scam victims.” 

Until a firm crackdown at the source happens, advocacy efforts by those like GASO and Slavant’s Facebook group are an attempt to cut off the scammers’ revenue streams through awareness raising. Part of that is encouraging victims like Tsai to publicize their stories, despite the ridicule they receive. Tsai says she’s been mocked, labelled naive and had her ability as a lawyer attacked after speaking to the press about what happened to her. 

She says these kinds of personal attacks shame victims into silence, perpetuating the scam and keeping the full scale of the issue hidden. Tsai believes her own scam might not have unfolded the way it did if she’d seen more stories online, and now sees it as her responsibility “to educate people” to avoid others falling prey. 

“A lot of victims do not want to come out, because there’s a lot of victim shaming involved,” she said. “That’s when I said, you know what, I volunteer—I volunteer as tribute. I’d be more than happy to share my story to get attention on this.”

Complacency, after all, is the scammer’s best friend, and even the savviest of people can lose everything in a momentary lapse of judgement. One GASO volunteer, a Ph.D. holder in biology who was scammed out of $150,000, recalled a line from a pig butchering handbook she’d seen. 

“There is no un-scammable person,” it read. “Only scripts that don’t fit.”

Follow Alastair McCready on Twitter.