That call center tech scammer could be a human trafficking victim

Interpol increasingly concerned as abject abuse of victims scales far beyond Asia origins

Human trafficking for the purposes of populating cyber scam call centers is expanding beyond southeast Asia, where the crime was previously isolated.

Interpol revealed this week that an ongoing investigation has discovered evidence of abuse emanating from South America and also the Middle East.

Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar have typically been the hotspots of this type of crime since 2021 when it was first tracked by Interpol. 

The latest five-month operation discovered that victims from Malaysia were being trafficked to work in Peruvian call centers and Ugandan victims were being trafficked to Dubai for the same reason, only to be diverted to Thailand and then Myanmar.

Police in Telangana, India, recently registered their first case of human trafficking for the purposes of cyber fraud. An accountant was lured to southeast Asia to work for a cyber fraud operation before eventually being returned in exchange for a ransom payment.

Interpol said that in Myanmar alone, it identified trafficking victims originating from at least 22 different countries, although most come from the country's Kayin and Shan states.

Operation Storm Makers II has led to hundreds of arrests and the rescue of more than 140 individuals, although the scale of the threat is much larger; many of the 360 investigations remain open and ongoing.

"The human cost of cyber scam centers continues to rise. Only concerted global action can truly address the globalization of this crime trend," said Rosemary Nalubega, assistant director, vulnerable communities at Interpol. 

"While the majority of cases remain concentrated in southeast Asia, Operation Storm Makers II offers further evidence that this modus operandi is spreading, with victims sourced from other continents and new scam centers appearing as far afield as Latin America."

Victims of human trafficking for cyber fraud are often lured to countries through fake job adverts but are instead forced to work in scam call centers, pushing cryptocurrency investments, as well as work-from-home, lottery, romance, and online gambling scams. All this, while being subject to "abject abuse."

A report from Interpol from earlier this year said victims are also subjected to extortion via debt bondage, beatings, sexual exploitation, rape, and in some cases even organ harvesting.

The same report detailed the range of fake job ads that are often used to lure victims. They range from low-skilled jobs promising light work and high salaries to roles like IT, digital marketing, and modeling.

It's also thought that the advent of consumer generative AI tools has allowed criminals to expand their pool of target victims beyond Chinese speakers, with easy-to-use translation software to create ads in additional languages.

Another factor driving the expansion of the crime was the COVID-19 pandemic, Interpol said, with digitized and remote work becoming more prevalent, while at the same time many also found themselves jobless and desperate for employment.

"What began as a regional crime threat has become a global human trafficking crisis," said Jürgen Stock, Interpol secretary general, in June.

"Just about anyone in the world could fall victim to either the human trafficking or the online scams carried out through these criminal hubs. Much stronger international police cooperation is needed to stop this crime trend from spreading further."

The latest operation, which carried out more than 270,000 inspections across 450 known trafficking and smuggling hotspots in just four days, also uncovered wider trafficking abuses with some victims barely in their teens.

One 13-year-old boy who was trafficked to India from Bangladesh was rescued following rapid action from the Interpol bureaus in each country.

Two Nepalese female victims, one aged just 17, were also rescued after they had been trafficked to New Delhi and trapped in prostitution.

Nearly 800 victims were intercepted after checks were carried out at border checkpoints alone, with hundreds more saved through other initiatives like coastline patrols. ®

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