Economic crisis in Sri Lanka has forced young and educated Sri Lankans to go abroad in search of jobs but many of these get trapped and are forced by Chinese nationals to work in scam call centers at Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Laos.
The Golden Triangle, which spans a land area of 10,000-hectares is located in northwest Laos. It is effectively run by Chinese national Zhao Wei, who owns Kings Resort Casino.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, speaking to Laos media recently said, "The Golden Triangle is one of the most prolific and notorious economic zones and Zhao Wei and his group are clearly well financed and able to move money despite sanctions".
Last year 3,11,269 people have left Sri Lanka for job seeking. Unfortunately, many of them are unable to resist the vicious offer of such a job and are forced to work with scammers, reported Daily Mirror.
Daily Mirror a Sri Lankan publication interviewed one such scammer who is a graduate and was trapped in scam because of unemployment in Sri Lanka. His name has been hidden by the publication for security reasons. As he is one of nearly 100 young Sri Lankan graduates, mostly men, lured to work in the scamming network.
Individuals like the victim were generally promised a job of USD 1000 in Thailand not knowing that he would be forced to flirt with well off Americans and convince them to invest their money in a crypto coin called Tether, other bogus investment platforms or gambling sites.
The victim interviewed for by the publication revealed that these scam centers were run from self-contained condominium compounds with access to hacking software and improved translation software, the scammers, who are themselves victims, target American citizens above the age of 37 by creating fake profiles on largely used US dating apps such as Hinge, Boo, Tinder and POF.com.
"All the little bosses we report to are Chinese. But no one knows who the big boss is," he said, describing himself as being at the bottom of a shadowy, seemingly endless chain of command involving members like himself, small team leaders, big team leaders, supervisors and country leaders.
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The ongoing economic crisis has forced people like the victim to seek ostensibly well-paying jobs. The victim explained that at the condominiums in the SEZs at Laos many victims were from Bangladesh, Pakistan and African countries, including Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda, Madagascar, India and Rwanda.
The report claims that people like the victim are generally flown from other places to the Laos. Regarding his experience, the interviewee told the publication that he was tricked by a close friend for which he had also received a commission for USD 500 for setting the Victim up.
Initially, he flew to Bangkok in mid-December 2022 with a three month tourist Visa. The report claims that the people like the victim get their passports stamped with tourist visas, the main objective is not to do sightseeing, but to look for jobs. Despite repeated warnings by the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau (SLFEB), an increasing number of unskilled and even skilled Sri Lankans are found to be misusing the tourist visa facility to travel to foreign countries and more often than not end up falling prey to human trafficking networks.
The victim also told the publication that even though he was tricked into this but was an organized group of Sri Lankans involved in sending citizens along the human trafficking pipeline to Laos. While one group is based in Laos, those staying in the same apartment compound are responsible for handling the Sri Lankans there. Another group is based in Sri Lanka and they approach individuals, brainwash them, prepare their travel documents and drop them at the airport.
On February 6 the Special Investigation Division of the SLFEB arrested an Ambanlanthota resident on charges of taking Sri Lankans to Laos on tourist visas promising to find them jobs in Thailand. He was produced in Court and remanded until February 20. Efforts were also being made to nab another man who fled during the raid. Reports say the main suspect had allegedly defrauded the victims of nearly Rs.1.9 million.
The report quoted SLFEB spokesman Gamini Senerath Yapa who advised Sri Lankans to desist from seeking foreign employment through questionable channels. "Do not trust agents. Do not even trust your so-called friends. Make sure you first secure a valid employment visa if you plan to work overseas. If you misuse your tourist visa, you will face dire consequences depending on where you are from and who you are with."
Two days later these individuals were taken from the Hotel and taken to a riverside district known as 'Little China' in the Bokeo Province, Laos. Further taking a domestic flight from the Bangkok International Airport to Mae Fah Luang - Chiang Rai International Airport from where two others including their team leader picked them up and accompanied them to the border.
Then they crossed the Mekong River into Laos in a speed boat and later the East Asian team leaders escorted them to a condominium compound. The report quotes the Victim saying that "The team leaders seemed to be well acquainted with the immigration officials. It was a smooth process with our passports being stamped with the Laos visit visa,".
The condominium consisted of newly-built dormitories, a supermarket, a canteen, a tennis court, a badminton court, a basketball court, and even spas, all catering to the needs of the scammers. He soon learned that he was a victim of an organized human trafficking network, which had ensnared hundreds of other young, educated men and women with nearly all of them having a university degree.
At the Scam center, their passports were taken away and given new names and identities. Including to this they were given eight iPhones with apple licenses, eight Sim cards and recharge cards. They were then asked to install dating apps Hinge in three phones, Boo in two phones, and social media apps such as Telegram, TextMe, and WhatsApp on two of the other phones and use the remaining phone strictly for official communication purposes. "We were given instructions to find photos of good-looking, rich, travel-loving individuals on Instagram to be used for our fake profiles on the dating apps,"
He was given the profile of a Turkish girl that matched the team leader's requirements after scouring Instagram for images of attractive girls. Different photos of the girl's photos were used to create three different profiles on Hinge, using three different locations in the US.
The scammers were then instructed on how to sweet-talk the victims and inquire about their hobbies, beliefs, and day-to-day routine. "Our job was to gain their trust and make them fall in love with us. Our daily target was to obtain five telephone numbers. Then, our tech experts gave us phone numbers in the US to text the victims via the TextMe app," He said.
The next and final step of the scammer's task was to convince the victims to install the Telegram app, which was not largely used in the US, saying they traveled outside the country for short periods of time and would love to continue communicating with them.
The scam that was being committed by the victim was taking a toll on his mental health as he said that "I felt disgusted when I came to realize what I was involved in. I did not want to die at their hands and was aware that resistance was futile," he said and added that those who resisted had to pay a high price. "When they fail to meet the daily targets, they are forced to work for 20 hours a day, while some of them were even meted out physical punishment, such as 100 squats, 100 push-ups and even electric shocks."
The victim described a Bangladeshi who raised his voice to a team leader was electrocuted. Feeling utterly disappointed and hopeless, another Human Resources graduate from Bangladesh attempted suicide by jumping off the condominium. Fortunately, he was stopped by others.
The report said that It is unfortunate that young and educated Sri Lankans like
The United States government, in its 2022 'Trafficking in Persons Report' said, "Victim protection services were disproportionately unavailable in Laos to male victims of trafficking and anti-trafficking awareness and capacity among border officials in key transit areas remain low despite ongoing government training initiatives".
Special Economic Zones are business parks or cities that have been granted exemptions from most national-level economic regulations. They often enjoy tax breaks, different labour laws, special visa rights, import and export exemptions and streamlined regulations. There are more than 7,500 SEZs in 100 countries worldwide.