(First of two parts)
Tantalized by the promise of being paid P50,000 a month, “Betty,” a single mother of four in Navotas City north of Manila, didn’t think twice about grabbing an opportunity last April to work as a call center agent in Thailand.
Before the month ended, the recruiter had arranged the Covid-19 antigen tests for her and another recruit, as well as the processing of their travel documents, and booked their flight. Everything had been smoothed over, and they only needed to pack their bags.
But soon enough, their excitement turned into dread.
Instead of a three-hour direct flight to Thailand, they were taken on a circuitous journey through southern Philippines, alternating rides in vans, planes and ships, staying for a month in Sarawak, Malaysia, then flying to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, crossing a river by boat, and finally landing on the outskirts of Myanmar.
They arrived at Shwe Kokko Yatai New City Project in Myanmar’s southeastern Kayin state, the fresh batch of recruits trafficked by Chinese triads to work as scammers in multibillion-dollar online gambling operations there.
“We thought we’d be working as call center agents,” Betty said in a statement. “We were given a profile picture to use. We would talk to a client, befriend him and convince him to invest in cryptocurrency. It involved deception. It turned out we were working as scammers.’’
After pleading with her recruiter, following months of abuse that nearly killed her, Betty was allowed to go home last Oct. 17.
With the help of a Philippine nongovernment organization and its international network, authorities rescued 12 other Filipinos on Nov. 19 from the online scam centers in Myanmar.
Baited and tricked
In the last few months, law enforcers rescued hundreds of workers from Asia, Africa and Europe who were similarly baited by a social media ad and tricked into working for the Chinese mafia in the scam zone. There could be at least 31 Filipino “scam workers” that also needed rescue, according to Sen. Risa Hontiveros.
Until their own rescue, the 12 Filipinos had been subjected to abuse and torture, especially if they didn’t generate revenues from the scam that often entailed sweet-talking the clients into investing in cryptocurrency via online chat, and if that didn’t work, engaging them in online sex.
And given the Filipinos’ proficiency in English, the syndicate planned to form an “all-Filipino team’’ of scammers in Myanmar and in other countries of operation, Hontiveros warned in a privilege speech at the Senate plenary hall on Nov. 21.
“These Chinese mafias are making the Philippines an incubator of scammers,” she said in the speech she delivered a day before she opened an inquiry into the trafficking of Filipinos to Myanmar, which has been under a state of emergency since the February 2021 military coup that deposed the government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
The 12 Filipino recruits—who responded to a Facebook page advertisement on the alleged lucrative job in Thailand that came with some perks—were made to believe they’d be taking calls from foreigners as call center agents or encoding data in a gleaming building in Thailand.
All that vanished when they crossed the border from Thailand to Myanmar in a boat under cover of darkness, escorted by armed guides, and were herded across the border into a building also crawling with men carrying guns.
According to “Rita,” one of those rescued, the first order of business was to create a fake account on Facebook, LinkedIn and other dating apps using the profile picture of one of their colleagues to scour for prospects on social media.
Once they gain the confidence and trust of the prospective client, they ask for his number on the messaging apps Telegram and WhatsApp to ensure regular communication.
The syndicate’s protocols hew close to those of a call center. The recruits are told to insert investment topics into the chats, and end chats with unqualified customers.
They are also instructed to find out the specific time the prospective client goes to bed. Evenings, they are told, are the perfect time for chats because it’s when most people feel empty and lonely, and need company. The goal is “to make him like you, trust you, depend on you, and want to get you right away,” per the protocols.
Thus, like call center agents, they rehearse a set of spiels covering a wide range of topics including sports, music and financial investments, depending on the profile of their customers who are mostly based in Canada and the United States. In the end, each has to package herself as an elite Asian career woman over 32 years old.
The syndicate’s scam blueprint, which Rita furnished the Senate committee on women, family relations and gender equality chaired by Hontiveros, included such spiels as: “I am a New Yorker in the United States. I am motivated to travel”; “I listen to less pop music except for Taylor Alison Swift”; “I like playing basketball, and I am a fan of the Lakers. But since Kobe left, I have not dared to watch the Lakers game again”; and “After dinner, I usually watch the news and research cryptocurrencies.”
One of the personalities they assume when dealing with clients is that of a fictitious Claudine Wong, marketing manager at Accenture, graduate of Nanyang Technological University Singapore and USC Marshall School of Business, with “over 10 years of career in business management, team leadership and customer service with Fortune 500 companies.”
“We pretend to be successful people, wealthy managers and all that. The goal is to gain the trust of the client,” Rita told reporters in a joint briefing with Hontiveros on the opening day of the Senate investigation.
“I am able to convince one client professionally because I’m a marketing manager but the others had to engage in a relationship just to gain the trust of the client. So they chat every day,” she said.
After hearing their stories, Hontiveros concluded that the entire operation had two sets of victims: the trafficked and the scammed.
“Additionally, [there is] the heavy impact on the victims’ mental health, not just of the scamming, but also of having to sustain sexual and romantic relationships online… and somehow feign sexual desire just to convince one to invest in crypto and avoid the heavy hand [of the mafia],’’ she said.
But at a certain point they have to cut to the chase and introduce cryptocurrency investment into the chat.
Once the customer agrees, he will be asked to invest an initial capital of $1,000. By design, the Chinese mafia will let the customer win in the trading, which they control, and withdraw his earnings, according to Rita.
“In the second trading, when the clients add more money into their capital, the scam begins. They won’t be able to withdraw their money anymore,” she said.
Heavy price for failure
Failure to con a client into investing in the scam came with a heavy price for many of the Filipino recruits.
In the case of Betty from Navotas, she was made to stand for 15 hours and to do duck walk for three hours, and was hit with a thick notebook in the head for minor infractions such as being slow in swiping cards.
At other times, she was made to carry brick stones for four hours, and then made to run after this, and if she was slow in running, hit with a ball in the back, or worse, whipped or subjected to electric shocks.
There was a time she suffered a cut on the chin while doing sit-ups as a punishment, her hands holding a ball behind the back, and was never treated for it. She sent her family a photo of herself in that state, and “they thought I was going to die,” Betty said, adding:
“I was once placed inside the black room or bartolina. I was just given four pieces of pandesal and a bottle of mineral water. Before that, I was subjected to electric shocks.’’
Throughout her stay, Betty managed to earn only $1,000 from the bitcoin trading scam—an amount just enough to pay for her expenses there. On seeing her pitiful condition, new Filipino recruits pooled their money together to pay for her travel back to the Philippines in October.
Rita was “lucky” because, she said, “I performed well in the eyes of the Chinese. If I felt crushed, the other Filipinos felt more crushed because there were times they had no clients, no customers, no one to con. So they’re subjected to verbal abuse, threats, 12 to 16 hours of duty.”
The Chinese mafia members trusted Rita so much that they were grooming her to be the next recruiter of Filipinos, Hontiveros said. “There’s no end to the abuse.”
In a Nov. 9 analysis, the US Institute of Peace said Myanmar has emerged as the “preferred location” of operations for trafficking and online gaming rings, partly because its army has survived on revenue from organized crime.
For as long as the military regime holds power, the institute said, “organized crime will spread to new parts of the country and increasingly pose a global security threat.”
“This human trafficking crisis is just one example of how Burma’s illegitimate military regime damages the security interests not only of its neighbors, but [also] of countries as far away as the United States, where ads for lucrative tech jobs in Southeast Asia have recently begun to appear in California,” it said. To be concluded