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Phone Scams and the Human Trafficking Connection

People are lured to Southeast Asian countries and forced to work in prison-like phone scam compounds

spinner image Sometimes scammers are victims of human trafficking.

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Have you ever thought about who might be on the other end of those scam calls and messages we all receive? The answer could be far more sinister than you might imagine. The “scammer” may also be a victim of human trafficking. These people are lured by the promise of well-paid jobs to travel to countries in Southeast Asia and are then forced to work in prison-like scam compounds. A BBC journalist and brave volunteers work to expose this brutal practice.

spinner image infographic quote that reads "If they have not hit the quotas they get beaten, shocked with cattle prods, and if it's really bad, they may get sold to another compound or even much worse."
Full Transcript

[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:04] Troy: They have a quota of a certain amount of money that they have to steal or obtain. And oftentimes those quotas are very, very high, nearly impossible. And so they get either beaten, shocked with these uh electric shock sticks or cattle prods. If it's really bad they may get sold to another compound or even... much worse. 

[00:00:28] Bob: Much worse meaning what?

[00:00:29] Troy: They could have their organs harvested. 

[00:00:32] Bob: Oh my God.


[00:00:35] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I’m your host, Bob Sullivan. Even if you've never been the victim of a scam, you've almost certainly been the victim of a scam phone call or text or private message. Have you ever thought about who's on the other end of the line? Who's placing all these calls and writing all these messages? Today, with the help of some brave volunteers, a brave journalist, and a very, very brave victim, we're going to find out. And the story is much more disturbing than I could have ever imagined.

[00:01:16] (film clip): DD left home for the promise of a good job in Sihanoukville. But when he met his contact in China, he was trafficked across the border and taken to a walled compound run by scam gangs.


[00:01:36] My name is Zhaoyin Feng. I'm an independent journalist. I make the investigative documentaries, previously worked with the BBC.

[00:01:44] Bob: Like many of us, Zhaoyin had heard about widespread cryptocurrency scams. But there was something about the stories which grabbed her attention, and she just couldn't let it go.

[00:01:56] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah, it was quite a rollercoaster. I first learned about the scam several years back from Chinese media coverage. But never had I imagined I would work on a story like this myself as well and discover more sinister sides of the scam.

[00:02:11] (film clip): DD says he's a prisoner. And he's being held in a city called Sihanoukville. (suspenseful music) The city is a popular destination for Chinese tourists. Attracted to its flashy casino district. Government-licensed casinos are legal in Cambodia, but many are being used a front for online scams.

[00:02:54] Zhaoyin Feng: Many scammers are actually human trafficking victims who are trafficked to Southeast Asia and locked up in prison-like compounds.

[00:03:02] Bob: They are forced to spend endless hours on the phone, to follow orders from people who control the compounds and to steal from people often on the other side of the world. In the film, the BBC takes you inside a scam compound to see what goes on in some of these prison-like places.

[00:03:22] Bob: Victims of crypto scams can lose thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. We've interviewed several here at The Perfect Scam. But Zhaoyin's sources were telling her that many of the people manipulating victims into sending that money were actually victims themselves. So she set out to make a movie about these victims. To do that, she had to find one willing to talk with her.

[00:03:50] Zhaoyin Feng: We got into contact with one scammer called DD. He was a 30-year-old Chinese man living in China, working as an internet cafe worker, but he um, answered to a job ad for what he, he believed to be a well-paid job in online gambling, and he left China in early 2022, and it turned out that he was trafficked to a scam compound in a beach town called Sihanoukville in Cambodia, and he was forced to scam potential victims online, and he told us the conditions in one of these compounds are just incredibly harsh. He was forced to work 12 hours a day, approaching at least 100 individuals based in Europe and US every day. If he couldn't deliver, he faced punishment; it would be beating or even electrocutions.

[00:04:48] Bob: Zhaoyin found DD by working with a nonprofit organization called GASO that is devoted to helping victims of human trafficking escape from these prison-like compounds. Many of the volunteers were once victims themselves.

[00:05:03] GASO stands for Global Anti-Scam Organization. And we are currently a registered nonprofit organization in the US.

[00:05:12] Bob: That's Leslie, one of the volunteers. She asked to remain anonymous because of the dangerous nature of her work.

[00:05:21] Leslie: GASO started out around June of 2021. We are a nonprofit organization, and it was founded by someone who was a victim of the scam herself. She founded the organization basically to help the victims of the scams, but also to try and help victims of the human trafficking portion of, I guess the, the scam world. And these are people that are human trafficked into companies that are based mostly in Southeast Asia, and these are the people that are being forced to conduct the scams that people become victims of.

[00:06:05] Bob: Troy Gothenhower is an investigator with GASO.

[00:06:09] Troy: The world has never, never seen a scam like this. This is not just somebody in their mom's basement that got lucky and got, you know, a thousand or $5,000 from somebody. This is done by organized Chinese crime based mainly out of countries in Southeast Asia where, you know, it's not just $1,000 taken or 500 or even 5,000. It could be a million. It could be 5 million dollars.

[00:06:37] Bob: Clearly the people whose money is stolen are victims. But they aren't the only victims.

[00:06:43] Troy: The people doing the scamming, if they don't steal enough money or take enough money or commit enough fraud, then they are beaten as well. So there uh two types of victims with this scam.

[00:06:56] Bob: Troy spends a lot of time in the dark corners of the internet trying to understand this dangerous underworld.

[00:07:03] Troy: I follow a number of the scammers on some of their Telegram chats.

[00:07:08] Bob: And through those secret chat rooms, or sometimes through panicked messages sent to their website, GASO gets in touch with desperate victims held against their will in scam compounds looking for a way out. When Zhaoyin approaches GASO, they are already in touch with the prisoner we're calling DD.

[00:07:28] Zhaoyin Feng: We established contact with DD when he was still trapped inside a compound in Cambodia, and he actually sent us video documentaries of his everyday life from his dorm bathroom because that's the only secure place where he could lock the door. And in one of his video diaries, he was whispering, because he was afraid that his boss will listen in, and he was telling us the boss has told him if he tried to escape, they would kill him.

[00:08:01] Bob: And after weeks of communicating with DD, it becomes clear that he's desperate to tell the world what's really going on.

[00:08:09] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah, he firmly believed that he shouldn't be locked up in such a place and scamming and hurting people online. So he was trying very hard to send a message out. So DD got in touch with them and had a long conversation with them, almost got in touch with them every day, was messaging them every day.

[00:08:29] Bob: And it seems, it even it makes me nervous hearing you talk about what would have happened to him if they discovered just that he was sending videos to GASO, right, he would have gotten in a lot of trouble.

[00:08:40] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah, indeed. That's why when we got into contact with DD, we quickly make sure he understands that his personal safety is the toppest priority, is the most important thing. He shouldn't do anything that may jeopardize his safety. And we found out that the bathroom would be a perfect place to film the video diaries because he could lock the door and no one else would be able to come in. He also suggest that he would whisper in the videos which we think is a brilliant idea, because then others outside the door would not be able to listen in. So it was an incredibly tense situation.

[00:09:22] DD whispering: (inaudible)

[00:09:30] Bob: He's whispering, "They force me to work over 12 hours a day. I'm exhausted when I get back to the dormitory." When he can, DD describes some horrific things happening in the compound.

[00:09:43] Zhaoyin Feng: He told us he wasn't beaten that much in the compound, but he definitely witnessed a lot of violence that were used on his colleagues, and a lot of brain washing by the bosses as well. On every morning before they started to work, they had to chant slogans and they had to even sing songs together to create a team spirit, so they feel uh motivated to scam people again. It sounds ridiculous, but that's the life scammers had to go through in the compound.

[00:10:18] Bob: From the beginning, the folks at GASO get to work trying to help DD escape from the compound, but it's not a simple matter of calling the local authorities.

[00:10:29] Zhaoyin Feng: GASO was trying to work with local volunteer to find a plan to get him out. But the planning took a long time because there were a lot of elements to consider. They also didn't want to make DD suffer, because if something didn't go right, maybe DD's boss could have learned about the plans before he managed to leave and that will result in more harm for DD. So it took a long time to plan, so DD was impatient.

[00:11:03] Bob: Leslie says that's pretty typical for GASO escapes. They can take a long time.

[00:11:09] Leslie: It's extremely frustrating for us. It sounds, it sounds really grand that we're doing rescue operations, but in reality, how we help these people is very limited. Our resources are limited, we are an organ--, volunteer-based organization. And most of these areas are too dangerous for, for anyone to go into to be on the ground, and scam compounds aren't exactly places that you can just waltz into and say, "Can you give me this person? They want to leave." So the logistics of how we can get someone out is, is very difficult, and it, it can be very grueling. There are times when we just can't help a person that's contacting us. It depends on their nationality. It depends on the government where they're from and how willing they are to cooperate with us in terms of assisting us. Sometimes it depends on the, the compound and how willing, how willing they are to cooperate with us and how willing they are to let someone go. Sometimes it has to do with ransom. They want money in exchange for a person, but most of these people, the reason they're there is because they don't have money. So are they going to be able, able to pay that ransom? Most likely not. So these are the logistics of the difficulties that we go through on a daily basis. Sometimes it's political, a lot of times it's financial. So yeah, it's, it’s not easy to get anyone out from a compound.

[00:12:47] Bob: As the weeks go by, the GASO team and the BBC reporter get to know DD pretty well from these hushed bathroom recordings. Eventually, Zhaoyin is even able to travel to the neighborhood where DD is being held against his will to see the scam compound called Wan Lo for herself.

[00:13:09] (film clip): The road takes us off the coast away from the city center to an enclosed set of buildings behind high walls.

[00:13:21] Bob: And, and I think it's important for people to understand you were doing this in, in real time, right? So while you were filming this you, you knew DD was inside?

[00:13:29] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah. And it really strike me when we're filming outside the compound, it was very quiet. It was surrounded by high walls, and it was not in the city center of Sihanoukville, it was kind of tucked on the side, and just by looking at that building, if I hadn't heard of DD's story I would think that just an ordinary office building. It, it looked harmless, but in fact, hundreds of people were locked up there to conduct online romance scam every single day. And it's shocking how many of these syndicates are still operating in Southeast Asia.

[00:14:10] (film clip): DD is 100 meters away, behind one of those barred windows. Since 2016, Wan Lo has expanded rapidly into what is now a large and well-equipped development which includes a casino, supermarkets, and a swimming pool. There's even a police station right next to the compound.

[00:14:38] Bob: I find that absolutely chilling to think about. So you, you know, through the course of this journalism, you con--, connect with this organization. You find out about this human being who is desperate to get out. And then, and there you are, almost as if you can see him behind the wall, but at, at least at that moment, you can't help him, right?

[00:14:57] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah, I couldn't do anything to help him. And I could see all the windows of that building are locked up, that they install some metal, metal installment outside of the windows, and it looked almost impossible for anyone to escape.

[00:15:16] Bob: Finally, just a few days later after four months of back and forth with GASO, DD's impatience drives him to take desperate action.

[00:15:26] Zhaoyin Feng: We spent months talking with him, and also analyzing the video diaries he sent us. So of course we established a relationship with DD. He's like a younger brother to us. We really felt for him. But after 4 months in captivity, DD lost his hope somehow.

[00:15:48] Bob: A cryptic message from DD arrives.  That seems to say, simply, ‘goodbye.

[00:15:57] Zhaoyin Feng: He said he couldn’t stand this anymore. He really didn't want to hurt people. He said goodbye to us and we were really worried because he went offline. So when he disappeared, after saying goodbye, we're extremely worried, we were hoping we would hear from him again.

[00:16:14] Bob: Will GASO ever hear from DD again? We'll find out in a moment. But first, it's important to understand that there are hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of DDs in Southeast Asia right now according to a recent report issued by the United Nations being held against their will forced to scam victims, beaten or electrocuted if they fail. "This is actually a fairly recent development," Leslie from GASO says.

[00:16:44] Leslie: So I think we would have to go back to the origins of how all this came about. So I think mainly in Southeast Asia historically, the, I guess the main business that they had at a certain point were casinos and online gambling. So I think the onset of COVID-19 played a very large role in their shift to online fin--, financial scams, because of lockdowns, because they had to close the casinos, and that's where the widespread use of the scam came about. So a lot of these people were initially existing migrant workers that were already in these countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar. And these were people that were essentially stuck because they couldn't go home. So they became very easy targets to try and get to go into these scam compounds to, to work. And on top of that, people were brought in from the neighboring Asian countries, and a lot of them were brought in with the prom--, promise of high paying jobs. Some of them thought that these would be legitimate jobs that they were going to not knowing, I guess, the nature of what they would be getting themselves into.

[00:18:00] Bob: So Leslie and Troy and dozens of other volunteers try to offer comfort and hope to these trapped victims. What is it like to hear from someone being held like a prisoner this way, desperate to get out?

[00:18:13] Leslie: I think when I first started with the organization, it almost felt like I was in a different world every time I was using my free time to do things for GASO. It's a very different world from what we can imagine, especially for us here in the United States. It almost feels like the Twilight Zone, that's how I describe it to a lot of people that ask me what it's like. Because you, it's hard to imagine I think how these people have grown up, what their environment is like, and what leads them to a situation like this, and what their everyday is like. And that's what they tell me. I, I speak to a good number of the scammers on a daily basis, whether or not they're, they're trying to scam me or if I am in the process of vetting them because they're asking us for help, they always, they always say to me that I can't possibly imagine what it's like in their shoes and what they go through on a daily basis. So I think we, we take a lot of things for granted being here in the US. Yeah, and so it's a very strange feeling talking to them. I think over time it's, it's gotten easier, it's gotten better, it's not as I think emotional because we have to approach it with a clear mind at all times.

[00:18:53] Bob: The victims worked 12- or even 16-hour days, sometimes using nearly a dozen phones all at once to carry on multiple scams simultaneously because they have to succeed.

[00:19:56] Troy: They have a quota of a certain amount of money that they have to steal or obtain, however you want to say that. And oftentimes those quotas are hit, are very, very high, like nearly impossible. And as a number of the scammers have been saying on the chats that I, that I follow, they have not been able to hit these numbers, and so they get either beaten, shocked with these uh electric shock sticks or cattle prods, whatever you call them, you can buy them online, or they may get sold if it's, if it's, if they're and if it's really bad they may get sold to another compound or even much worse.

[00:20:35] Bob: Much worse meaning what?

[00:20:36] Troy: They could have their organs harvested.

[00:20:39] Bob: Oh my God.

[00:20:41] Bob: The scam operators are desperate to succeed to avoid punishment, which is why they swap tactics.

[00:20:49] Troy: And if I may say something, if I may add to that, because these scammers all have these Telegram chats, they communicate with each other and if they have questions on how to scam somebody, they can ask the group. For instance, how do they use Coinbase, or Binance, or even something like how do I get this person to cash in their 401K or to sell their house? So it gets that serious, and there are other scammers on there who have been doing this for a while and can actually give these other scammers advice on how to scam.

[00:21:24] Bob: Hmm, that's just remarkable. It's like a scam university.

[00:21:26] Troy: That, that is exactly what it is. It is, it is an industry. There are actually companies that support this industry. There are developers who will make their websites. I actually spoke to one of them on, on via Telegram chat, pretended to be, you know, somebody who wants to start their own scam business. This particular developer could have set me up with a website with scripts that I would use to, to talk to potential victims and list names and contact information of victims around the world. So one-stop fraud shop.

[00:22:00] Bob: Wow.

[00:22:01] Bob: And the only reason the UN or GASO knows about what's going on inside these compounds is because brave victims like DD are willing to risk punishment to get the message out.

[00:22:13] Leslie: And most of what we know comes from our direct communication with some of these scammers who seek out help. So we get a lot of information from them that way, the stories that they tell us, the things that are happening. Sometimes if they can, they will, they'll try to send us pictures, they'll try to send us video, and if, if you look hard enough, those videos sometimes circulate online as well.

[00:22:41] Bob: How do victims sneak out messages to places like GASO?

[00:22:45] Leslie: They do it very secretly. A lot of them don't have their own personal phones. It's what, what we call a work phone that they use purely for scamming purposes, so they have to be very careful when they contact us. Most of the time we use codes. We tell them after every single conversation that we have, they have to delete it on their end, so that if their phone gets checked, they don't, you know they don't get discovered that they're seeking out help because that is also a reason for the compound or the company that they're working under to punish them because they're trying to leave.

[00:23:22] Bob: There is information suggesting that punishments can be very, very severe. The BBC film reveals footage of one victim who was left on the side of the road, emaciated and near death.

[00:23:34] Zhaoyin Feng: When we did our research on this specific compound, we found that there were many mysterious cases linked to this place including the death of one Chinese man. He was trafficked to this compound and later fell very sick and he was left to the highway near the compound, basically abandoned there. And, and some Chinese volunteers in Cambodia sent him to the hospital to help him to get the care that he needed. But it was too late. He eventually pass away, and this is only one of the many horrifying stories coming out from these secure compounds in Cambodia and in Southeast Asia.

[00:24:22] Bob: Could I get you to, to describe some of those horrific things that you've seen?

[00:24:24] Zhaoyin Feng: Ooh, so difficult scenes to describe. We also received many videos from GASO. They got these videos from other scammers working from other compounds, and in these videos, you see the horrifying scene of what a human trafficking victim might face every day in the prison-like compound if they don't listen to their boss, if they don't deliver what they're required to do, they may face beating. They will be locked up in a small dark room, and they might even face electrocution even if they were crying in the video or they were begging for mercy, people who were beating them continue. And you know I don't need to mention that they are also forbidden to, to leave. If they try to escape and is caught later, they will face even harsher condition.

[00:25:20] (film clip): (Inaudible)

[00:25:22] Bob: "There is only one way to manage the them," this former compound worker tells the BBC.

[00:25:28] (film clip): The type of violence DD witnesses is common.

[00:25:33] Bob: Okay, so clearly this organization knows this is going on, and you know it's going on, and now I know it's going on, and I, I read a UN report recently about this suggesting there might be as many as hundreds of thousands of trafficking victims, but yet it goes on. What system is there that allows this to go on?

[00:25:52] Zhaoyin Feng: That's a really good question. So we found that most scam syndicates in Southeast Asia appear to operate in secure compounds whose owners are connected with political and business elites in those countries.

[00:26:07] Bob: The UN report also makes note that so-called special economic zones where government regulation is lighter to encourage entrepreneurship can become breeding grounds for illegal activity.

[00:26:19] Zhaoyin: For example, in Sihanoukville, where we went to film a, for the documentary, there are many casinos which are front of human trafficking syndicates. And you're absolutely right that some so-called special economic zones in the region of Southeast Asia are being uh used by criminals. It's a lawless place to operate such scam syndicates.

[00:26:49] Bob: Zhaoyin's research led her to find many shocking things about these crime compounds.

[00:26:55] Zhaoyin Feng: It surprised me how well organized the syndicate is. For example, the scammers find their targets on dating sites, social media, and messaging apps, and they could send messages to hundreds of people on a day, but when the victims reply to them, actually the case escalated to another department of the criminal syndicate. So they have people who are trained to you know break the ice with the victims, start to strike a conversation, and uh introduce themselves as friendly, rich, and successful counterpart to them. So you thought you were talking to one person, but in fact it might be 10 people behind a chat, and they all play different parts. And it's very telling how the criminal syndicate is well organized and understands people's mindset very well and know what to say at the right moment to attract more attention and to build up more trust. It all leads to the angle of convincing the victims to invest. So unlike the conventional type of online romance scam where the scammers ask the victims to send them money directly, the scammers actually try to convince the victims to invest on a fake platform for their shared future. So this is much more sophisticated.

[00:28:28] Bob: It's one thing for a scammer to ask for money, "I'm on an oil rig, please help me." It's another thing to say, "We have a shared future. Can, can we make money together for this dream that we're trying to create together."

[00:28:40] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah, and the scammers tend to pose as good-looking, caring, rich, and financially stable savvy. They profile themselves as someone good at investing. So as long as they establish a relationship of friendship with the victims, they seem to be very convincing when they say, "Hey, I have this great idea to make some money for you."

[00:29:04] Bob: Not only are the syndicates sophisticated, they now exist on sprawling complexes like the one DD is trapped in.

[00:29:12] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah, that's right. And it's not only Wan Lo, which have grown exponentially over the past few years, but the scam itself has become so much larger. I mentioned I first learned about it from Chinese media coverage a few years ago, because the scam first targeted individual in China around 2017, but it has since gone global finding victims in the US, in Europe, in Asia, and especially during the pandemic, there is a big trend of the scam becoming uh more and more rampant given we spend more time at home online, and it also started to develop this human trafficking side of it, because it was difficult to find scammers who were willingly is into this uh going into this industry during the pandemic. So the scam really developed in the past few years.

[00:30:08] Bob: GASO which developed right along with the scam during the past two years, does painstaking work as it tries to help victims. And there are success stories.

[00:30:20] Leslie: A success story is when everything falls into place, when we can successfully contact the embassy of the person that uh their nationality, and when they're willing to cooperate with us, and when we can approach a compound and say, we are representing a specific country or we have been contacted by someone, and they would like to leave, and they are there unwillingly and you should not be holding onto someone under those situations, and if you do, then there could be trouble that you may not want. So we would, we would love your cooperation if you can release this person. And even for someone to get released there are a lot of logistics. They don't just walk out of the compound and cross a border. A lot of times we have to arrange for a car, a, a driver, a trusted driver that can bring them to, into Thailand most of the time. Thailand is sort of the hub of where everyone goes in and comes out. And that's where we would coordinate, bring them to an embassy or a police station, wherever they would need to go, immigration, and help them through the process of obtaining a passport, obtaining a, a plane ticket, and, you know, put them on a plane and send them home.

[00:31:51] Bob: But the process is fraught with potential pitfalls. And there have been some heartbreaks.

[00:31:58] Leslie: We have had cases where a victim doesn't necessarily follow all of our instructions. They could get to the point where they step foot outside a compound, but they get into a car that we didn't arrange for. And the danger of that is that you could have a driver that will sell that person off to another compound, and that has happened.

[00:32:19] Bob: Ugg.

[00:32:20] Leslie: And they do it purely for money, and we lose contact with that person until they try to contact us again. And the next time we speak to them, they are stuck in another place, and it could, yeah, and it could potentially be a place that is even harder to deal with than the previous compound that they were in. So yes, that has happened before too, which is why the, the logistics of everything is extremely difficult and it's hard to find people that we can trust. Sometimes you can't even trust the police in those areas because they are bought out by the compounds as well. So yeah, it's, it's very, it's very complicated. Sometimes it can be disheartening, but we try our best.

[00:32:59] Bob: Some victims just can't bring themselves to take the risk.

[00:33:04] Leslie: We get a lot of people who ask for help, and when we tell them the steps of what needs to be done, there are times when they are just so scared, and legitimately so, that they back off and say, okay, that the risk is not worth it. I don't want to die. And I've had ones that just stopped communicating with me because I think they get, they get scared, and they're not sure if it'll definitely work. And that's one of the challenges that we face. I, we never promise anyone that it will work 100%, that I can guarantee that you will come out if you follow the steps that we're telling you, or if we do what we think will work.

[00:33:51] Bob: And you probably won't be surprised to learn, GASO volunteers have been targeted by these crime gangs.

[00:33:59] Leslie: We will get people that will approach us because they want information, which is also why we're very protective of our own identities. There are scammers out there or even scam bosses that try to contact us pretending to be victims because they want to get more information about us. They want to know who we are; they want to know more about our processes and how we try to rescue people. So we're, we're very guarded in that sense. So the people on the human trafficking team are, tend to be very methodical, very, very, we try to be very clear minded when we're, when we're dealing with these people.

[00:34:38] Bob: Yeah, I assume you are, your organization is a threat to them.

[00:34:42] Leslie: Oh, of course. Yeah, they are constantly trying to find out trying to find out who we are. I believe our founder has received multiple threats because she's interfering with business. So, so it, it can be, it can be sensitive at times.

[00:34:57] Bob: And the most sensitive time can be when GASO is right in the middle of an escape, especially when victims don't follow their instructions. Right now, all GASO knows about DD Is that he sent a cryptic message that said, "Goodbye."

[00:35:14] Zhaoyin Feng: He was deeply depressed and after four months in captivity, he became extremely upset. One day he just sent us a farewell message. He said, "I can't stand this anymore. I really don't want to hurt people. Goodbye." And when we received that message, our heart sank. We didn't know what he was going to do, whether he would be able to escape or was he going to take his own life? We were extremely worried.

[00:35:48] Bob: A half a day goes by and nothing. But then...

[00:35:52] Zhaoyin Feng: So all the windows in the compound were covered by metal installments, but DD managed to find a small gap in between AC units hanging outside the windows. And on one early morning, it was still dark outside, it was also raining, so the sound of the rain help him to make his final jump from this building. He felled on the bushes. He felt excruciating pain from his left leg. He also smashed his bone, but thankfully, no one seemed to have noticed that he jumped out. So he hide in the bushes for a little longer, and eventually crawled his way to main road outside of the compound. He had saved up 100 dollar from working in this compound for four months. So he managed to hail a taxi which took him to somewhere safe. And on the taxi, he, he videochatted with us telling us that he make it out. We were all so relieved and we were cheering that uh, DD is free now.

[00:37:08] Bob: DD is free now. And Zhaoyin isn't too far away. Remember, she’d driven by the complex DD was being held at only a few days earlier. So she's able to arrange to meet with DD in person.

[00:37:24] Zhaoyin Feng: Um, so when we met him, he was wearing clothes that he had been wearing for days. He didn't have any other clean clothes that he could change to. Um, he was also still suffering from the injury he, he got from jumping out the window. Um, so he had bruises on his body. Um...

[00:37:48] Bob: What was your first thought when you saw him?

[00:37:50] Zhaoyin Feng: When I saw him, I was surprised by how young and how ordinary he is, but in many ways he's extraordinary to be brave enough to tell his story. But from his ex--, from his appearance he looked like any other Chinese young man I mean see in, in China or in any parts of the world. He seemed very naive and very sweet and calm. He doesn't look like a scammer at all. But um, he was made to do what he didn't want to do.

[00:38:28] Bob: But he looked very young.

[00:38:29] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah, he's a 30-year-old, he was really young. He was a bit quiet, extremely sweet and polite.

[00:38:38] Bob: So what happens next for DD?

[00:38:40] Zhaoyin Feng: So after he found a safe shelter in Phnom Penh, he stayed there for a couple of months because it was difficult for him to travel back for him to travel back to China during the COVID lockdown, but eventually he make it home after a lot of efforts and a lot of help from people. And at the end of the film you saw a message from DD. He was safe and sound, and he was hopeful about his future, and he is working again in China. So I hope his case does shed light on situations many human trafficking victims face in such compounds, but also there are people who may be looking for a job or who may just get a job recommendation from friends that these things do happen and it's better to do your due diligence.

[00:39:32] Bob: In fact, DD tells the BBC, this desire to tell the world what's happening inside the compound, to warn other people, that's the only thing that gave him hope, that gave him the will to live during the darkest moments of his captivity.

[00:39:49] Zhaoyin Feng: But when he reflected on his ordeal, what supported him to go through every single day in the scam compound was the hope to tell his story and to alert people to this scam.

[00:40:01] Bob: That, that's the only way he made it out was that he was hoping he would be able to get out and then share his story.

[00:40:06] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah, to share his story not only to alert people who may fall victim to the romance scam, but also to alert young people like him who are longing for a high paying job, believing job ad but didn't know that they're tricked to become a scammer. So he wanted to then make this message loud and clear to those who might be struggling to stay away from this kind of online scams.

[00:40:31] Bob: But for victims like DD, escaping and getting home, well that's often not the end of their troubles.

[00:40:39] Zhaoyin Feng: Many former scammers after they manage to leave the compounds and return home, they may not be welcome because people see them with the stigma that they used to work as scammers. Different countries have different approaches to this kind of uh returnees. In China, the government has set out po--, policy to encourage them to come home and most of them do not face very harsh punishment when they report themselves to the local governments. However, many former human trafficking victims do continue to suffer because they have to deal with the trauma they experienced inside a compound, and also try to develop new skills so that they could work in a new industry. It's not an easy life after getting out of the compound.

[00:41:33] Leslie: Their problems from when they tried to leave are, are still there, probably financial, trying to look for a job, all of these things. Maybe perhaps trying to get more education, all of those difficulties are still there. So we would love to be able to help them out more with that if we can. But yeah, in a lot of countries these, these people are not, they’re not treated as victims. But they are automatically, I think, treated as criminals, regardless of if they were doing it willingly or not. Which is why a lot of our human trafficking victims, don't necessarily even want to go home. As hard as they have it within the compound, they know that life could potentially be even worse if they went home. I had a, a scammer that I've been in contact with for a little while. He doesn't have the money to pay his way out. There's no way for us to get him out because of the particular location that he's, he's in in Myanmar. And he mentioned to me that recently the police in that area went into his compound and removed a lot of people from different nationalities. And all they said was, "Raise your hand if you want to leave." So I asked him, I said, "Why didn't you raise your hand?" And he said it was because, "If I raise my hand, they would remove me from the compound but I would be handed over to the police, and they would bring me back as a criminal." So you are automatically put on trial. The, the potential of going to jail for at least five years is extremely high. And he didn't want that. So he, he...

[00:43:18] Bob: That's heartbreaking.

[00:43:19] Leslie: Yeah, and he, so he said, "I would rather just stay here. I owe a ton of money to the, to the, the company because I'm not making any money, but everything within the compound costs money. Even your, your phone bill, a meal, everything. Water you have to buy. Anything you can think of, and it's not cheap. So these people actually, if you're not making money, end up accumulating debt the longer you stay there because, because you have to pay to, to even eat a bowl of rice. But in, in his case he said, "I can't, I don't want to raise my hand and be brought back as a criminal and end up in jail."

[00:43:58] Bob: Wow.

[00:43:59] Bob: The problem of scam compounds seemed to spring up overnight but there are well-established systems that enable it, and it certainly won't be fixed overnight.

[00:44:09] Zhaoyin Feng: Yeah, I mean from a perspective as a journalist, I think my job is to expose these criminal syndicates, especially how they run and how they are hurting people along the road to create a public awareness to somehow decrease the chances of people falling victims of this scam no matter on the side of the financial scam or on the side of the human trafficking scam. I think a lot leaves to be done by authorities of the countries affected by the scam syndicate, and also to international organizations who should oversee this issue and work with different countries because clearly, we're facing cross-border cybercriminal network, which is not an easy target for any individual authorities. But this requires collaboration of many, many countries in the region.

[00:45:09] Bob: Her movie and other media attention to the crisis has made a difference, she thinks.

[00:45:15] Zhaoyin Feng: You know our film is one of the many in-depth media coverage of this phenomenon in Southeast Asia. And all our recording as a whole has contributed to more international pressure on local governments to tackle this issue. And even though, as far as I know, hundreds of criminal syndicates are still operating in Southeast Asia. The issue of criminal syndicates who use human trafficking victims to scam has been brought under daylight, and I believe more changes will take place given now there's way more attention on the scam.

[00:45:58] Bob: Troy believes there's a lot of work to do to prevent the next DD from becoming a victim.

[00:46:05] Troy: My wish list is that people would I, I guess would get informed. When this scam hit the West, it started in China and then Southeast Asia, it hit the..., hit globally in 2021. When it hit the West, nobody had heard of it. There was no one to go to. There was no law enforcement that knew about it, no media knew about it. But now it's everywhere. And so my wish list 1) is that people were more aware, informed. my second wish list is social media companies where people are contacted would step in and police their platforms a little better. Some do, some are working on it. Some don't seem to be working on it much at all. Another thing that would be a, a wish list would be that more law enforcement would get involved to help victims. When they, when or if they report, we do know that losses are in the billions of dollars, and most people don't report it.

[00:47:03] Bob: And that's why, and Perfect Scam listeners know this well, we just have to break the shame and the shroud of secrecy around becoming a victim of crimes like this. And now we know it's not just the victim whose money is stolen through this scam, but on the other end of the line there might be a victim too.

[00:47:23] Leslie: There's a lot of stigma involved with it. There's a lot of shame involved with it. A lot of people don't necessarily want to, to talk about it. They feel stupid. They don't even want to report it to the police because I've had victims tell me that the police just look at them like how could you let this happen to you, you should have known. That's not the case, and I, I want people to feel more comfortable about, about talking to other people about it, raising awareness, reporting it so that law enforcement is aware that this is a problem, and it's a very big problem. And when that happens then our, our law enforcement agencies, our government agencies hopefully will see the need to, to educate their, their agents, educate our police officers better so that they can help these victims, truly help them.

[00:48:16] Bob: Anyone who needs the help of GASO can reach out to the organization at its website: And you can watch the BBC film for free on YouTube at the BBC's channel: BBC World Service. For The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.

[00:48:41] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Our email address at The Perfect Scam is:, and we want to hear from you. If you've been the victim of a scam or you know someone who has, and you'd like us to tell their story, write to us or just send us some feedback. That address again is: Thank you to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.



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