Gangs netting up to $3 trillion a year as Southeast Asia human trafficking becomes a global

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Human trafficking-fueled fraud is exploding in Southeast Asia with organized crime rings raking in close to $3 trillion in illicit revenue annually, the head of Interpol has said in comments that reveal the huge profits being earned by cartels.

One international organized crime group makes $50 billion a year, according to Interpol secretary-general Jurgen Stock, adding that $2 trillion to $3 trillion of illicit money flows through the global financial system annually. To compare, France’s economy is worth $3.1 trillion according to the International Monetary Fund.

While drug trafficking contributes around 40% to 70% of organized crime income, criminal groups are also using those smuggling networks to illegally move humans, arms and stolen products among other things, Stock said.

“Driven by online anonymity, inspired by new business models and accelerated by Covid, these organized crime groups are now working at a scale that was unimaginable a decade ago,” Stock told a briefing at the global police coordination body’s Singapore office on Wednesday.

“Today, a bank – or indeed anyone – is less likely to be robbed at gunpoint than via a keyboard by someone on the other side of the world.

“What began as a regional crime threat in Southeast Asia has become a global human trafficking crisis, with millions of victims, both in the cyber scam centers and as targets.”

Interpol says its operations in Asia have led to nearly 3,500 arrests and the seizure of $300 million in illegally earned assets across 34 countries since 2021.

Survivor testimonies, NGO campaigning and media reporting over the past three years have increasingly exposed an explosion in online fraud gangs operating in Southeast Asia, many using de facto slave labor to target people across the globe, including the United States.

Victims from across Asia are often duped into seemingly legitimate jobs around the region and are then trafficked into scam compounds where they face serious abuse, including forced labor, arbitrary detention, degrading treatment or torture – often with minimal or no help from local authorities.

Hundreds of thousands of people are trafficked into online criminality across the region, according to a United Nations report last year.

The UN estimated that up to 120,000 people could be held in compounds across Myanmar, which has been plunged into civil war since a 2021 military coup, with another 100,000 people held in Cambodia and elsewhere in conditions that amount to modern slavery.

Criminal enterprises also exist in Laos, Thailand and the Philippines, with many of the lucrative online scam operations ranging from illegal gambling, to love scams and crypto fraud.

“People who are coerced into working in these scamming operations endure inhumane treatment while being forced to carry out crimes. They are victims. They are not criminals,”  UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in the report.

One key hub for scam syndicates is Myanmar, which shares a mountainous border with southwestern China – and Beijing is now trying to crack down on cross-border crime targeting Chinese nationals.

In heavily guarded compounds controlled by local warlords, tens of thousands of people, mainly Chinese, have been trapped and forced by criminal gangs to defraud strangers with sophisticated schemes over the internet. Beijing has pressed Myanmar’s military government to rein in the scam operations, but with limited success.

Elsewhere, casinos in the Philippines catering to illicit gamblers from China have spawned across the country with authorities in Manila struggling to curtail the rising number of gambling establishments used as fronts for scam centers and other fraudulent crimes.

Earlier this month, more than 800 Filipinos, Chinese and other nationals were rescued during a police raid of an online romance scam center posing as a casino some 100 kilometers from the capital, the official Philippine News Agency reported, citing local authorities. Hundreds of the victims were made to pose as lovers to lure people to send money, in what’s commonly known as a “pig-butchering” scam.

The victims, some from Malaysia and Vietnam, told local investigators that each forced worker was pressured by alleged crime lords to siphon $42,000 daily online, and said they were beaten when they did not meet that target.

And scammers are getting more sophisticated, using artificial intelligence to swindle corporations.

In Hong Kong, a finance worker at a multinational firm was tricked into paying $25 million to fraudsters using deepfake AI technology to pose as the company’s chief financial officer in a video conference call, according to local police. It is unknown where the scammers were based or where the huge sum of money went.


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