Tourists wearing surgical masks are pictured on a beach next to Burj Al Arab in Dubai on January 29 2020. - The United Arab Emirates announced the first confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in the Middle East, with a four-member Chinese family from Wuha
Tourists wearing surgical masks are pictured on a beach next to Burj Al Arab in Dubai on Jan. 29, 2020. Photo: GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images


In Dubai, Chinese Industrial-Scale Scam Mills Are Thriving

Scam operators built an empire in Southeast Asia through forced labor and human trafficking. A VICE News investigation now confirms their creep to the UAE.

For Lin, getting to Dubai from Taiwan was easy—the scam company that had just hired him booked the flight and paid the airfare. Getting back home, however, was a lot more difficult. 

It was sometime in September 2021 when he arrived in Dubai, the glitzy poster-child of the United Arab Emirates. Lin said his employers took his passport shortly after he landed, accused him of owing them for his travel expenses and ordered him to get to work. By the time he’d spent about a year there, Lin claims he was shuttled against his will between four companies that worked various scams


Lin, who spoke under only his surname as he didn’t want to be identified, said he didn’t know he was being recruited for scams, adding that the job was listed as a customer service position requiring no experience.

“It was asking for someone who knew Chinese and could use a computer,” he told VICE News. 

Lin would later tell Taiwanese officials that he fled by jumping out of a building once his handlers decided to sell him to scammers in Cambodia. Without a passport in the UAE, Lin said he was stuck again. It wasn’t until his story was picked up by a Taiwanese influencer, where in a live stream interview from Dubai he criticized the inaction of Taiwanese officials in the Gulf state, that he was cleared to return home.

“When you see Chinese building new buildings [in Dubai], it’s for the scams, they’re built by the scam companies,” he said from Taiwan. “I don’t know how many companies there are in total, but there’s a lot.”

Lin’s testimony sheds light on a lesser-known hub of a rampant online scam industry causing alarm across the globe, one flourishing amid rampant criminality and weak governance in the Southeast Asian countries of Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. 

The UAE—more commonly associated with shimmering real estate, oil-funded glamor and a draconian approach to law and order—may seem an unlikely spot for an industry defined by its use of crude violence and human trafficking. But accounts from Lin, as well as two other former or current scammers and seven human resources representatives from the industry who spoke with VICE News, confirm the presence of a thriving Chinese-run criminal underworld in the emirate with tight links to its Southeast Asian counterpart. 


While scammers told VICE News the industry in Dubai displays a more cautious culture to avoid the attention of authorities, the end result is the same—sums likely stretching into billions of dollars stolen over the internet.

“Many companies have a base in Cambodia, in Myanmar, in Laos and Dubai—the same company, in different places doing the same things,” said a representative of the Global Anti-Scam Organization (GASO), who asked to withhold their name due to the nature of their work.

Volunteers established the organization—which assists scammed victims, as well as those in the industry attempting to escape—in the wake of Southeast Asia’s burgeoning crisis. Since early 2020, a suspected multi-billion-dollar scam industry has taken root across the Mekong region, as the economic downturn saw Chinese criminal syndicates pivot from gambling operations to industrial-scale scam mills. 

Propped up by workers from across Asia—lured under false promises of well-paid online jobs, then forced to commit fraud against unsuspecting targets—reports of brutal violence, imprisonment, and human trafficking have become commonplace. 

In Southeast Asia, the industry has thrived amid weak governance and rampant corruption. At first glance, Dubai may not seem to fit the profile sought by these same criminal enterprises. 


The UAE, a federation of seven emirates, is widely described by international rights groups as an authoritarian state with a strictly monitored society. The state’s deep level of control is upheld by a robust security system fine-tuned to weeding out political dissent or religious extremism. With such policing, the UAE promotes itself as one of the world’s safest countries. 

But perhaps just as central to the UAE’s national identity as law and order is its business-friendly climate. It has built its modern economy in large part on global connectivity and ease of setting up shop. But this openness has come with downsides. Last year, the watchdog organization Financial Action Task Force placed the UAE on their grey list of countries to watch for money laundering. 

This stems from “government apathy” toward fiscal crimes, said Lakshmi Kumar, policy director of Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based think-tank that researches illicit trade and corruption.

Kumar specializes in tracking money laundering and has researched the legal structures of Dubai’s “free trade zones,” economic parks which allow businesses to register and operate with minimal oversight or bureaucratic red tape. These areas offer similar perks as the “special economic zones” of the Mekong region, many of which have been associated with scam operations.


Kumar said the cyberscams industry would fit the mold of a number of other illegitimate actors, such as gold smugglers, that have found Dubai to be fertile ground to operate.

“Both criminals and legitimate business actors are both attracted to the same type of business environments,” said Kumar, pointing to the UAE as a “gateway” between Europe, Asia and Africa. “[The UAE] has attracted a lot of legitimate business interest, but that also means it immediately attracts bad guys because it gives you reputational benefit.”

“There are now a significant number of victims who reported being hired for a legitimate job in Dubai, only to later be told by the company that their position was being moved to Laos, Cambodia, or Thailand.”

In April, the support office of the Bali Process—an international human trafficking forum co-chaired by the governments of Indonesia and Australia, encompassing more than 50 member states, including the UAE—named the Gulf state as a host nation for scam operators in a policy brief

Jason Tower, the Myanmar country director for the United States Institute of Peace and a leading researcher on Southeast Asia’s scam industry, said listings for well-paid “IT space” jobs in Dubai began appearing in 2020. Though he said it’s unclear to what extent pig butchering scams are actually done in Dubai, there’s now “ample evidence” the city is used by scam syndicates as a “transit point for trafficked labor.”


“There are now a significant number of victims who reported being hired for a legitimate job in Dubai, only to later be told by the company that their position was being moved to Laos, Cambodia, or Thailand,” Tower told VICE News. “The unsuspecting victims agreed, only to be forced into cyber-slavery on arrival.”

The Chinese embassy in the UAE issued a public warning about scam activity in Dubai as early as May 2021, a few months after a Chinese national was murdered in a sprawling, low-rent development on the suburban fringe known as International City. 

The statement said the embassy had “received calls from many Chinese citizens asking for help” after being lured by recruiters promising free airfare and “high-paying jobs” online. Such travelers were soon forced into scamming, the embassy warned, by employers who confiscated passports and restricted their movements.

“Their personal safety was seriously threatened and they could not leave the country normally and return home,” the warning stated, adding the embassy was working with UAE police to “increase the crackdown on related crimes.”

Tower said Chinese-language media has reported since 2021 on such international fraud cases stemming from Dubai. 

“There are also reports that following Thailand’s crackdown on the presence of [China-] affiliated criminal syndicates since late 2022 that a growing number of these syndicates have relocated to Dubai,” he said.


Police in Dubai did not respond to comment by press time. Law enforcement in the capital Abu Dhabi did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the UN Office of Drugs and Crime representative for the Arab Gulf region. UNODC’s Southeast Asia office, which tracks scam activity in its own area, said it couldn’t comment on Dubai. 

Views from an office complex sent by "HR Han" to a VICE News reporter. The recruiter said the office, supposedly in the Dubai Investments Park, is used by a scam company.

Views from an office complex sent by "HR Han" to a VICE News reporter. The recruiter said the office, supposedly in the Dubai Investments Park, is used by a scam company.

By September 2021, some four months after the Chinese embassy’s warning, Lin said he was pulling scams in a multi-story office building in the Dubai Investments Park, a large, mixed-use development near the city’s desert edge. He estimated his company had about 200 employees, all but a handful of whom were Chinese.

Known locally as DIP, there Lin said he stayed in a shabby dorm a few minutes’ walk from his office, which he believed housed as many as eight different scam companies. The one that Lin worked for specialized in online gambling fraud, reaching out to people directly through the Chinese social media WeChat and enticing them to try their luck. 

“In the beginning, you could earn some money, small amounts, so you’d put more money in,”  Lin recalled, “but once they think you’ve put all your money in, they would freeze the account, so you could not get the money back.” 

In the four months he was with this organization, Lin claimed it was stealing between 20-30 million Chinese yuan ($2.89-4.3 million) per month through scams. Other companies in the building at that time focused on different scams, he said, with some recruiting English speakers to hit marks in the U.S. and Europe. 


According to Lin, DIP was a place where criminal enterprises could blend in with the legitimate ones with few questions asked by authorities. 

The park is home to about 4,000 registered businesses and 100,000 people living within the economic park, a local development executive, who asked to go unnamed for fear of losing his livelihood, told VICE News. A long-term operator whose firm was based there, the executive said maybe 75,000 of those living in DIP were laborers from South Asia living in cheap housing. 

Across the UAE, almost 90% of residents are foreign nationals—of these, the majority come from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, often working grueling construction jobs in dangerous conditions and with rampant labor abuses to send remittances home. Against this backdrop of foreign labor, Chinese expats were able to find their niche, scammers included. 

“In terms of mid-range areas, the Chinese population was substantial,” the executive said of DIP.

The park’s management office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“When you arrive in Dubai, I will receive you personally.”

On the messaging app Telegram, VICE World News found in Dubai—and especially DIP— a burgeoning ecosystem of Chinese-language expat groups in which ads for scam jobs freely circulated. 


Almost all of these expat groups, the largest of which had more than 100,000 members, appeared to be either frequented or directly administered by human resources representatives of scam organizations. Most were distinguished with “HR” in their usernames.

One recruiter, who went by HR Han, was advertising jobs in offices across Dubai, the Philippines and Cambodia’s coastal scam hub of Sihanoukville. A VICE News reporter told the recruiter they were a scammer seeking work, adding that they were in China and wanted to go to Dubai.

HR Han said they represented a group that maintained nine scam companies in Dubai and seven in Sihanoukville. While the Cambodian offices handled “lottery scams,” the recruiter said their offices in the UAE’s DIP focused specifically on scams that target “porn fans” and “baby mom fans,” or new mothers seeking parenting products and advice.

The representative offered a basic salary of 10,000-15,000 yuan ($1,450 to $2,180), with one day off every month. If a scammer could extract between 300,000-700,000 yuan ($43,600 to $101,700) from their marks in one month, HR Han said they would receive a 6% commission. Bigger hauls exceeding 3 million yuan ($435,190), they added, would bump the commission up to 13%.

“The Chinese government often checks the people who go to Dubai or Cambodia, but we have a way to ensure that you can leave the country smoothly, as long as you have no previous criminal record,” HR Han promised. “When you arrive in Dubai, I will receive you personally.”

 An ad for scam jobs originally posted by the recruiter "HR Han" in several of Dubai's Chinese-language Telegram groups.

An ad for scam jobs originally posted by the recruiter "HR Han" in several of Dubai's Chinese-language Telegram groups.

An active scammer claiming to be in a Dubai scam center, who went by the Telegram handle “Sun,” shared information about his life with a VICE News reporter who posed as a fellow fraudster hoping to move to the city from Sihanoukville. 

Messaging in Chinese, Sun said he lived and worked in DIP for a company that targeted quick-turn scams at the so-called porn fans. For this, he and his coworkers pretended to be women to chat up marks in the comments sections of racy videos, stroking their egos before bleeding them of money.

“We finish this up very quickly,” Sun messaged. “[But] it depends on our luck to close it out and get a commission.”

“The boss of the scam company doesn’t dare to take out the electric baton easily for fear of causing trouble for himself, maybe a big one.”

He claimed he was required to scam almost $145,000 every month, for which he received a commission of about $2,900. Sun also said Dubai-based scam companies tend to operate out of private villas or normal-looking offices—a far cry from heavily guarded compounds seen in Southeast Asia. 

He’d only heard of one compound-style headquarters in the UAE, a place called “Phoenix Park” in the smaller emirate of Ras Al Haimah about an hour’s drive up the coast. The scam managers at Phoenix beat their workers, Sun had heard, but generally he thought the industry in Dubai was less violent than that of Southeast Asia. He scoffed when asked if police could be bribed to turn a blind eye to workplace abuse.


”Do you know how much monthly salary the UAE police get? Do they still need scam companies to buy [them] off?” he wrote, saying that “whoever hits you is your god of wealth” as they’ll need to pay you hush-money to avoid trouble with authorities.

“Anyone who dares to touch you is breaking the law here,” Sun explained. “The boss of the scam company doesn’t dare to take out the electric baton easily for fear of causing trouble for himself, maybe a big one.”

The Chinese Telegram groups were interconnected with dozens more catering to those seeking drugs, sex workers or money laundering services in the city. There were also a few places where scammers gathered to talk tough, swapping tales of their journeys through Southeast Asia.

One of these latter groups, called “Dubai dip communications group” (迪拜dip交流群), even hosted open business negotiations between scam company HR representatives among its listed membership of about 7,000 users. Members haggled over the price per head of Vietnamese recruits, gave occasional advice to newcomers and shared clips of people being tortured in what appeared to be Southeast Asian scam compounds.

“Strive for making this group the largest group of human traffickers in Dip,” wrote one user under the handle “Cola on ice.” 

“It's all for money, money, money,” responded another user named “HR Ah K” in what seemed like an ironic lamentation. “Human traffickers are for money, drug dealers are for money, it's all for money.”


The HR representatives who spoke with VICE News shared various details of their companies in Dubai, including salary information and information about their offices. One representative, who went by “HR Helen” on Telegram, said they represented a company in DIP with more than 100 workers running pig-butchering, lottery gambling, and porn fans scams. They targeted both people in China and elsewhere, starting with phone messages and moving to calls; for international scams, they employed some non-Chinese people to handle the phone.

“There are online companies everywhere [in Dubai],” they said, complaining that a reporter sounded more like a boss testing the waters than an earnest job-seeker. “There are more than tens of thousands [of workers]”. 

Besides DIP, three other parts of Dubai also featured prominently in these groups. There was International City, the scene of the 2021 murder. A center of Chinese life in Dubai, expats there sometimes refer to the place as “Dragon City” due to a massive mall complex there called Dragon Mart. 

For more respectable quarters, some job listings directed people to the Silicon Oasis, a relatively well-to-do area home to local campuses of foreign universities. Other ads named the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre, or DMCC, where glassy skyscrapers rise above what’s billed as the city’s largest free trade zone.

But with little information from the ground, the GASO representative said Dubai is “kind of a mystery” to their organization. While many of the scammers they speak with mention the UAE, GASO gets far fewer calls for assistance there than Southeast Asia. The organization believes this may be due partly to what appears to be the greater prevalence of people voluntarily going to work there, people seemingly like scammer Sun.

“The higher the volunteer rate, the lower [rate] of bad things there,” the representative said. They currently have three cases of people in Dubai—all of whom went voluntarily to work in scams—who have reached out for help in freeing themselves from their companies when conditions became worse than they’d expected.

While the scale of the scam industry there remains an emerging picture, Sun indicated that business is good—and appears to be growing, at least in his office.

He spends about 12 hours a day on the job, and while staff formerly worked overtime, he said the company has since recruited more employees to pick up the slack. 

“Now, there are more than 100 employees, with many having come recently,” he said. “Visas to come to Dubai are very easy to get.”

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