Southeast Asian scammers steal $64 billion yearly, says US report

Backed by local elites, scamming networks are becoming of strategic interest for Southeast Asian criminals.

A report released on May 13th by the US Institute of Peace (USIP) states that since 2021, Southeast Asia’s cybercriminal networks with close ties with China have expanded their reach and power, posing threats globally and to US national security.

By the end of 2023, it’s estimated that criminal syndicates worldwide stole approximately $64 billion annually. In Cambodia, where local elites own compounds, scam revenue makes up half of the country’s formal GDP, exceeding $12.5 billion each year.

The scamming industry has thrived in loosely regulated casinos and online gambling, expanding its reach globally during COVID-19.

Backed by local elites

By operating legal and illegal businesses, criminal networks are establishing scamming compounds primarily in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. However, numerous countries in the region are involved in these operations, engaging in trafficking of forced labor and money laundering.

The scamming compounds are of strategic interest and are backed by governments and business elites. The criminal activity is often hidden behind casinos, resorts, hotels, and special economic zones (SEZs).

Cambodian casinos and hotels deserted due to the COVID pandemic's dampening effect on tourism have been fortified and transformed to assist the online scam industry.

The United States has increasingly fallen prey to the Southeast Asian scamming industry, witnessing a rapid surge in annual financial losses. In 2023 alone, Americans faced estimated losses totaling $3.5 billion, while their Canadian counterparts experienced losses of around $350 million.

Forced to scam

The scamming operations are run by the forced labor of hundreds of thousands, often lured by deceptive online advertisements promising high-paying tech jobs, and then trafficked illegally into scam compounds, where they're held captive by armed gangs.

In March, nearly 900 victims of human trafficking were freed from a romance scam factory disguised as a gambling company in the Philippines. The UN warns that cyber fraud and tech slavery is booming in Southeast Asia. According to Humanity Research Consultancy, there are currently around 25,000 scam-slaves. However, this number could be much higher.

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