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The ads on the Telegram messaging service’s White Shark Channel this summer had the matter-of-fact tone and clipped phrasing you might find on a Craigslist posting. But this Chinese-language forum, which had some 5,700 users, wasn’t selling used Pelotons or cleaning services. It was selling human beings—in particular, human beings in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, and other cities in southeast Asia.
“Selling a Chinese man in Sihanoukville just smuggled from China. 22 years old with ID card, typing very slow,” one ad read, listing $10,000 as the price. Another began: “Cambodia, Sihanoukville, six Bangladeshis, can type and speak English.” Like handbills in the days of American slavery, the channel also included offers of bounties for people who had run away. (After an inquiry from ProPublica, Telegram closed the White Shark Channel for “distributing the private information of individuals without consent.” But similar forums still operate freely.)
Fan, a 22-year-old from China who was taken captive in 2021, was sold twice within the past year, he said. He doesn’t know if he was listed on Telegram. All he knows is that each time he was sold, his new captors raised the amount he’d have to pay to buy his freedom. In that way, his debt more than doubled from $7,000 to $15,500 in a country where the annual per capita income is about $1,600.
Fan’s descent into forced labor began, as human trafficking often does, with what seemed like a bona fide opportunity. He had been a prep cook at his sister’s restaurant in China’s Fujian province until it closed, then he delivered meals for an app-based service. In March 2021, Fan was offered a marketing position with what purported to be a well-known food delivery company in Cambodia. The proposed salary, $1,000 a month, was enticing by local standards, and the company offered to fly him in. Fan was so excited that he told his older brother, who already worked in Cambodia, about the opportunity. Fan’s brother quit his job and joined him. By the time they realized the offer was a sham, it was too late. Their new bosses wouldn’t let them leave the compound where they had been put to work.
Unlike the countless people trafficked before them who were forced to perform sex work or labor for commercial shrimping operations, the two brothers ended up in a new occupation for trafficking victims: playing roles in financial scams that have swindled people across the globe, including in the United States.
Tens of thousands of people from China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and elsewhere in the region have been similarly tricked. Phony job ads lure them into working in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, where Chinese criminal syndicates have set up cyberfraud operations, according to interviews with human rights advocates, law enforcement personnel, rescuers and a dozen victims of this new form of human trafficking. The victims are then coerced into defrauding people all around the world. If they resist, they face beatings, food deprivation or electric shocks. Some jump from balconies to escape. Others accept their lot and become paid participants in cybercrime.
Fan and his brother eventually ended up in Sihanoukville in a compound surrounded by a barbed wire fence. They were made to lure people in Germany into depositing funds with a phony online brokerage controlled by their operation, which also targeted English speakers in Australia and elsewhere.
“This idea of combining two crimes, scamming and human trafficking, is a very new phenomenon,” said Matt Friedman, chief executive of the Mekong Club, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit that combats what it calls modern slavery. Calling it a “double hurt,” Friedman said it’s unlike anything he’s ever seen in his 35-year career. The phenomenon has only just begun to come to light in the US, including in a Vice article published in July.
The most widely used technique among these operations is known as pig butchering, an allusion to the practice of fattening up a hog before slaughtering it. The approach combines some time-tested elements of fraud—such as gaining trust, in the manner of a Ponzi scheme, by making it easy for marks to extract cash at first—with elements unique to the Internet era. It relies on the effectiveness of relationships nurtured on social media and the ease with which currencies can be moved electronically.
Typically, fraudsters ingratiate themselves into online friendships or romantic relationships and then manipulate their targets into depositing larger and larger sums in investment platforms that are controlled by the fraudsters. Once the targets can’t or won’t deposit more, they lose access to their original funds. They’re then informed that the only way to retrieve their cash is by depositing even more money or paying a hefty fee. Needless to say, any additional funds disappear in similar fashion.
Some Americans have lost huge sums. An entrepreneur in California said she was swindled out of $2 million and unwittingly facilitated an additional $1 million in losses by convincing her friends to join her in what seemed like a surefire investment. A hospital technician in Houston enticed her friends and colleagues to join her in a similar scheme, costing the group $110,000. An accountant in Connecticut is no longer preparing for retirement after watching $180,000 vanish in two separate swindles. They were among more than two dozen scam victims from seven countries interviewed by ProPublica.