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Human Trafficking into Scam Centers Targets your Money And Your Life

Matt Friedman talks about human trafficking into scam centers and the dangers we don't know about.

It’s easy to assume that all scammers are evil and heartless. After all, they’re tricking you out of your money. But in reality, the person on the phone or sending you emails may not want to scam you any more than you want to be scammed. Many scam masterminds are using human trafficking into scam centers to force kidnapped, imprisoned people to scam for them under threat of torture or even death. And the worst part is that if you’re not aware of the threat, you could become one of their modern-day slaves forced to scam other people.


See Human Trafficking into Scam Call Centers with Matt Friedman for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Matt Friedman is an international human trafficking expert who has been working on the issue for over thirty years. He started his career in Nepal as a public health officer. After eight years in Nepal, he worked in Bangladesh and Thailand before taking over one of the largest counter-trafficking programs in the world. He also found an organization called the Mekong Club, which works with businesses in the private sector to address human trafficking.

The Horrible Story Behind Matt’s Human Trafficking Work

While doing public health work in Nepal, one of Matt’s responsibilities was looking at HIV and AIDS cases. He kept finding young girls, twelve or thirteen years old, who were HIV positive, and couldn’t figure out why. So they interviewed people, and they heard the same story over and over. A man would come to their village, flash around money, and say he was looking for a wife. Eventually he would marry a young girl. Then he would say he was taking his new wife to Kathmandu and they would be back in a few months.

Instead, he would take her to the red light district in Mumbai, India, and sell her to a brothel. The brothels have professionals who wear the girl down. Eventually, she stops resisting. She would work in the brothels, seeing up to twenty men a day, for years, until she became what they call “black eyed” – so physically, emotionally, and spiritually depleted that no one wants her anymore. Then they turn her out on the street.

Matt didn’t understand the true evil of it until he actually saw the brothels. He and a police officer went to do a health check. An eleven-year-old girl saw him and begged him to save her. But when he told the police officer they needed to get her out, the officer said they couldn’t – if they tried, they’d both be killed. Matt came back later with more police, but by then, the girl was gone.

Matt wasn’t someone who wanted to grow up to be an activist. But this experience was a test. For a while afterwards, he couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep. Eventually, he accepted that he was going to spend his life fighting human trafficking.

The Rise of Human Trafficking in Scam Call Centers

If you’re a regular reader of the WhatIsMyIPAddress.com blog, you’re probably familiar with scam call centers. They’re professional operations where scamming is people’s job. They have playbooks and training, and every day they get on the phone to defraud people, then go home to their families.

Human trafficking into scam centers is the intersection of human trafficking and scam call centers. There is the scam aspect of it, with scammers’ tricks to defraud innocent people. And there’s also the trafficking element, where the people making the calls or sending the emails are being forced to do it.

This is a new crime where human trafficking and scamming converge.

Matt Friedman

Human trafficking into scam centers got its start during the coronavirus lockdowns. There were lots of criminals working casinos in Cambodia. When the lockdowns hit, casinos closed. They had infrastructure and criminals, but nothing to do. Pretty quickly they realized that if they call people up, tell them lies, and ask for money, about every tenth person would give them money. If they all did that, they could make good money while the casinos were closed.

Eventually they realized they had the infrastructure for more people to make these calls. So they started trying to hire people. But they couldn’t find people who were willing to scam others, even if they were paid. Finally, they decided to just bring people in and force them to scam. They put out advertisements for good jobs making a lot of money. They would even pay for plane tickets. Those who arrived got picked up at the airport and driven to a scam center. There, they were made to spend fifteen hours a day in front of a computer scamming people, and if they didn’t hit their target they would be tortured or beaten.

What Types of Scams are Happening in Scam Centers

Scam centers have their human trafficking victims doing all types of scams. Most common scams can be done through scam centers. A big one right now is “pig butchering.” It often starts with “accidental” correspondence – the scammer messages the target and calls them the wrong name, and when the target responds saying they’re not that person, they strike up a conversation. It can also be done over a dating app or social media. However it starts, the scammer builds a relationship with the target. They also talk about how much money they’ve made in cryptocurrency and encourage the target to invest. The investment website shows big returns, but it isn’t until the target tries to withdraw their money that they learn the investment was fake.

In India, a common scam is with ads for loans. An ad offers a lot of money with a low interest rate. The target clicks through and enters their information to get the loan. But when they do, a scammer gets access to their phone and takes their information. When the target tries to pay the loan back, they get told they have to pay more. The scammer may even use AI to put the target’s face on a naked body and threaten to send it to the target’s family. This has resulted in a number of suicides because of the shame associated with it.

Scammers continue to get much more creative in the way that they go after people.

Matt Friedman

People at scam centers have all kinds of strategies to go after people. And with AI chat scripts getting better and the possibility of creating fake websites that look nearly legitimate, they have opportunities everywhere.

Violence in Scam Centers

One of the really concerning elements to Matt about human trafficking into scam centers is the violence involved. If you’re trapped in a scam call center and you don’t meet your target, your kidnappers are going to beat or torture you. One site required victims to steal $14,000 USD per day. If particular victims aren’t generating enough money, they may be sold to other scam centers. You can see these “sale listings” on Telegram as the scammers buy and sell trafficked people between scam centers.

Sometimes the traffickers will offer to sell a victim back to their family for $20,000 or $30,000. If the family can’t pay, the victim may actually be killed. These killings, and the torture and beatings that often happened, are filmed. Then the traffickers sell those videos online to people interested in “harmcore” – videos of violent, painful things happening to other people. It’s horrific what the victims go through.

Human trafficking into scam centers is horrific for victims.

And rescue may not end the nightmare. In some cases, victims who are recovered after being trafficked into scam centers are then arrested, charged, and imprisoned for the scamming their captors forced them to do. In the human trafficking world, there are laws that protect many victims. If you were trafficked into prostitution and prostitution is against the law, there are laws that say you can’t be arrested and charged for the prostitution your trafficker made you do. But there’s no laws like that to protect human trafficking victims forced to scam people.

Terrible things happen to them, but there’s no laws that protect the victim from the work they did [while trafficked].

Matt Friedman

How Human Traffickers Hook Victims

Most human traffickers target immigrants and people of lower socioeconomic class. But human traffickers who want to traffic people into scam centers have a wider range of victims. In fact, some of their recruiting strategies especially target middle-class and even affluent people. Almost anyone can be a target for this type of human trafficking.

The Fake Job Approach

This is the approach that human trafficking into scam centers started with, and it’s still very common. It often starts with a legitimate-looking job posting on an actually legitimate job search engine. In some cases, they advertise on sites like Facebook.

However they reach the potential job-seeker, they convince someone to apply for the job. They may even do an initial video interview with the applicant, which makes it seem very legitimate. Eventually, they will say that either they want to do a final interview on-site or offer them the job. They will even pay for the job-seeker’s plane ticket. But when they arrive, instead of a final interview or an exciting new job, they are taken to a scam center and forced to work.

The Romance Scam Approach

Another approach that human trafficking into scam centers will use is similar to a romance scam. The victim will connect with someone online. Often, it’s a male victim connecting with someone who is, or pretends to be, an attractive Asian woman. They fall in love through their online communication. The scammer then suggests they go on a vacation together, and even buys the victim a plane ticket. But when the victim arrives, the person they’ve been talking to isn’t there. Instead, they are taken to a scam center and forced to scam people.

Spotting a Trafficking Attempt

Many of the signs of a job scam also apply to spotting a human trafficking attempt masquerading as a job. Be suspicious of anything too good to be true. Consider why a company would want to hire you to go work in a less-developed country doing a job that someone local could do. On some job ads, you may see a company name but a Gmail address. And if you know how to spot a fake website or take a close look at the ad, chances are there are signs that it’s fake. It’s important not to get so excited about the opportunity that you overlook the potential dangers. The same is true of the romance scam approach. Watch out for red flags that your online sweetheart might not be who they say they are. And never go to another country to meet a stranger!

In the early days of this scam, location used to be a reliable red flag, as well. Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos were common sites of scam centers. It was easy to tell people to be suspicious of job offers and romantic vacations to those locations. But now these operations are expanding into other places. Matt has heard of scam centers in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Dubai, several countries in Africa, and even Mexico.

This [trafficking] model is expanding because it’s like having an ATM. You force a person to sit in a chair and scam all day … they’re just generating money.

Matt Friedman

The criminal enterprise is changing and evolving. Now that the human trafficking into scam centers model is out there, it can expand. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing. It’s profitable for the scammers running the show, and most of the risk is placed on the trafficking victims actually doing the scamming.

Government Response to Human Trafficking into Scam Centers

When the story about human trafficking into scam centers initially broke, there was a lot of pressure to do something about it. Other governments put pressure on Cambodia and Myanmar to stop it, and for a while there were raids and rescues. But the profit generated by these scam centers is extreme, and that’s a cause for concern. In some places, the masterminds behind the scam centers can become so rich that they can get away with it.

[Traffickers] are able to generate so much money that they can reverse rule of law and human rights violations are okay.

Matt Friedman

Putting pressure on these governments generally was able to have an impact at first. But then the scammers decided to move to locations where governments don’t care as much if people are trafficked. That’s part of why we’re seeing a rise in scam centers filled with trafficking victims in lots of other places. Victims are being brought in and nobody is putting pressure on these centers, so they are allowed to flourish. And these new sites learn from the weaknesses of other sites, so they are even more sophisticated and difficult to deal with.

How to Stop Human Trafficking into Scam Centers

When it comes to human trafficking as a whole, there are an estimated 50 million people trapped in modern slavery. In human trafficking into scam centers specifically, there are an estimated 100,000 victims in Cambodia and Myanmar alone. It’s a huge problem. It’s also challenging because it’s international. If it were a problem just in the United States, for example, there are lots of resources different agencies can use to target it. But when it crosses borders and continents, it’s much harder to address.

Addressing human trafficking into scam centers will require a lot of governments to work together.

The United Nations recently put out a report on human trafficking into scam centers. Probably there will eventually be a multi-stakeholder meeting where governments come together to discuss what needs to be done and how to do it. The process is slow. But in the interim, scam centers can take hold in different locations, get money, and become so rich that they can basically insulate themselves from any consequences.

This is one of those blinking light, DEFCON 7 type things where if we don’t address it now, it’s going to get so out of hand that we’re not going to be able to contain it.

Matt Friedman

The Mekong Club

Matt works with the Mekong Club in Hong Kong to address it from another angle. The Mekong Club works with the private sector – banks, manufacturing, retail, hospitality, technology, and more – to help them understand human trafficking and what they can do to address it. Scamming has potential impact on a lot of industries.

The Mekong Club is also working to raise awareness. They get on social media in multiple languages to talk about scams and human trafficking into scam centers. They are also in the process of developing public service announcements about the issue. Currently they are trying to raise money to do the public service announcements in multiple languages. They also have a website with prevention information in multiple languages.

When it comes to human trafficking, 90% of the material tends to be in English, but 90% of the people who need it don’t speak English.

Matt Friedman

Another aspect of their work is getting other people involved. This is a huge issue that’s not going to be solved by just a few people. If you are a banker, a risk assessment person, a communications person, a public relations person, or anyone else who wants to get involve, Matt encourages you to reach out. If we wait for governments to deal with it, it will take a long time. And this issue is almost at a tipping point. If we don’t address human trafficking now, it may get to a point where we may not be able to stop it.

If we don’t address this now, if we don’t incentivize governments now, if we don’t take action now, we are going to be in a situation where this is beyond what we can control.

Matt Friedman

Prevention Through Awareness

Matt does talks all over the world on trafficking, and he is often surprised about how little general knowledge people have about it. With something specific like human trafficking into scam centers, very few people know. But awareness is essential – people need to know about this. You need to know what to watch for and when a job or a romantic vacation might be a ploy for trafficking. If you go overseas, you need to know how to alert your community if something happens.

Al Jazeera put out a documentary that is a great place to start if you want to learn more. You can also periodically Google “human trafficking into scam centers” to see new articles coming out about this. If you’re a parent, talk to your kids about this threat. Share this post with your friends. Put it on social media. Talk to your network. If you have elderly parents, talk to them about the risks and encourage them to call you first if they don’t understand something on their computer or phone. A big part of the process of stopping human trafficking into scam centers is making people aware the situation exists.

Learn more about Matt Friedman and the Mekong Club at themekongclub.org. If you are interested in learning more or volunteering, he encourages you to reach out.

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