ITV News Correspondent Lucy Watson speaks to victims of human trafficking being forced to scam people online
When you think about the concept of being scammed online, you naturally think the person who might do it to you is an immoral individual, but early this year I was told about "forced scamming," which changed how I thought about the idea entirely.
Forced scamming is one of the most complex and fastest-growing forms of modern slavery in the world.
Interpol recently announced that it considers it to be a global crisis "representing a serious and imminent threat to public safety."
UK banks are also warning of huge increases in online scams. So, what is it and how does it happen?
We recently went to Thailand to find out, because it is in south east Asia's poorest nations that the problem is rife, and the crime is growing. A crime that is double-edged, with two sets of victims.
Graduates from Europe, Africa and Asia are applying for jobs online that they believe are legitimate. They engage with, what they think, are recruiters.
They often have online interviews and are then offered the job abroad. They're promised competitive salaries, accommodation and a chauffeur-driven escort from the airport.
Instead, when they turn up in Asia, they are unknowingly driven to Thailand's borders where armed men then appear, take their passports from them and get them to cross a river into a compound where they are forced, under threat of violence, to persuade people from anywhere in the world to invest in crypto-currency.
They strike up relationships with foreigners, sometimes through dating apps, and message them on WhatsApp or Signal for weeks until they've gained their trust.
Once they have that trust they're persuaded to put small amounts of money into crypto schemes.
Unbeknown to the investor, the scammers have also created a fake website where the investor appears to see their money going up, so they invest more.
At this point, the investor can even withdraw their money from the crypto account.
They think they have control of it, and because they trust in the process, and the people, they invariably invest more.
When the sums are large, the advisor and scammer disappears, taking the money with them. It is the scammer's crypto account that is full, not the investor's.
It is an incredibly sophisticated operation that is spreading like wildfire across countries like Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, where huge compounds now exist, inside which trafficked victims live and carry out the crimes and the crime thrives.
Thailand is often the transportation hub, and we travelled across it into Laos, to see for ourselves, the huge sites where victims are being held and tortured.
We spoke to victims. They told us how they were forced to do it. We witnessed a rescue, and we stood aghast at the size of it, where borders are porous and corruption is common.
As soon as we arrived in Bangkok, we spoke to "Sarah" online, a graduate from Africa, who was rescued from a compound in Myanmar late last year. She is now safely back home.
“The people that you’re with have your life in their hands. I had to do everything those people told me to do.”
Sarah was abducted from Bangkok airport after getting a job with a tech firm in Thailand, that she'd seen advertised on Facebook.
Instead, she was trafficked to the Thai/Myanmar border. Her passport and phone taken from her.
“They drove around to confuse us. When we got to the side of the river, there was a boat, and when you looked across the other side of the river, there were armed men. I froze. In my mind I knew, ok I’ve been trafficked.”
She was trapped inside a compound for nine months and forced to con Brits and Americans on messaging apps, into investing in cryptocurrency.
“My job was to make friends, make connections, make them believe I was a rich Asian woman and then they could entrust me with their money. They told me their whole finances and showed me a screenshot of their bank account.”
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We travelled to that same border. The Thai military was on patrol there, yet still people are being smuggled across the Moey River, at night, to Myanmar on the other side where the notorious compound KK-Park exists, which is close to where Sarah was held.
Jake Sims from the International Justice Mission (IJM) - the organisation that rescued Sarah - took me right up to the waters edge where we could see into the compound.
Watch-towers, communications masts, dormitory buildings. It's unusual to get as close as we did.
Those in the watch tower weren't there to look out for the likes of us, but "almost certainly oversee what is going on inside there. Just like a prison guard in a yard," Jake told me.
It was hard to comprehend being there, that just 150 metres away from where we were standing, people were being forced to scam millions of pounds out of others from across the world, yet nobody can do much to stop it.
ITV News also obtained secret video of what similar operations look like on the inside. A normal style office, like a call-centre with guards in army fatigues walking around, monitoring behaviour.
Jake told me exactly what "profile" these forced scammers have.
“They are not your stereotypical trafficking victim. These are educated people, many are multi-lingual, they’re technologically savvy, they’re young, from urban areas," he said.
"They are going on social media platforms, looking for jobs. Very, very often lured by fake adverts using the slogans of major brands like Accenture Thailand."
He also showed me satellite images of KK Park from 2020 to 2024. The growth of the site is staggering.
“It’s enormous. Basically, anyone in the world can be a victim of the human trafficking side or they could be a victim of the crime itself.
"These are people from the UK, the US, Taiwan, China losing their life savings, and it is happening on this magnificent scale.”
And it's true. Six thousand miles away in Manchester I met Rebecca who was scammed just like this.
"I felt sick. I thought, "No, this can't be happening to me," Rebecca said she felt when she realised she'd lost a "life-changing amount of money." She couldn't even bring herself to tell me how much.
She was conned into investing in crypto-currency after clicking on a pop-up site on Facebook which led her to a crypto-currency platform.
"I invested £200, built up rapport with an account manager. I was speaking to him more than I was speaking to my husband and over months and months I added more and more, a life-changing amount. That's when things went wrong."
I then asked her to show me his messages to her on WhatsApp. He was still online at 12.31pm today.
Whoever scammed Rebecca is still active, but nobody can say where from and along the Mekong River this network of compounds expands further.
Back in Asia, another fortress-like compound we found out about was where Myanmar meets China. We met a young woman trafficked there called Nikki.
She's originally from Thailand, a graduate too and was held in Laukkaing there for five months. Her sole job was to feign romantic interest in Europeans.
“I was given a script so I knew what to say, and when Europeans messaged me back in English I used Google translate to answer them. I had to find five new victims to scam every day. For every person I didn’t get, they beat me up five times with a plank of wood.”
Failing to meet the criminals’ targets can mean being chained up, being beaten with sticks and even electrocution. Aside from the punishments, even the basic working conditions are difficult.
“I worked from 9am to 4am sometimes. No time to sleep, eat or shower. I never thought I would live through it.”
Myanmar’s raging civil war enabled Nikki to escape last month, when the compound lost all electricity.
We also went to the Golden Triangle, to the Mekong River, where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos all meet. There, we investigated yet another place where this crime exists, and saw high-rise buildings, where IJM told us, they'd had reports and pleas for help aswell.
We posed as tourists to be allowed in this particular part of Laos. It is a 40-mile area called a “Special Economic Zone,” that's fuelled by Chinese money.
It is Laos, but has the reputation for being a Chinese city conducting extensive illegal activity, where multiple calls for help have been tracked to.
“It’s difficult to control," the Thai government official who's responsible for the surge in forced scamming and online fraud told me.
“From the information we have it’s various groups that have joined forces, most of them are Chinese.”
Siriwish Chantechasitkul works as Director of Human Trafficking Crimes Bureau in Thailand.
He said, the organised crime groups all "talk on social media together, communicate with each other all the time. They know what the police in each country is doing.”
I asked him why it can't just be stopped when we all know where it's happening.
“Because the crime is happening outside Thailand’s borders, we don’t have the authority to investigate, so we can’t stop it. Every country involved - especially those where the crime is taking place - need to co-operate intensively."
When co-operation does happen, people can be freed. We saw it for ourselves.
We witnessed the rescue of an East African man taken to a Thai government shelter. He'd been held in Myanmar for a year. His identity had to be protected. Those who were looking after him told me.
Bangkok was where his journey as a modern-day slave began and finished. He now has refuge there from a crime of exploitation, violence and fraud. A fraud that affects lives far, far beyond that city.
If you've been a victim of fraud, you can find help and support on the Action Fraud website here or by calling the helpline on 0300 123 2040.
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