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Cambodian cybercrime industry highlighted – Thai Examiner | #cybercrime | #infosec


New York Times exposé from last week heard Thailand’s Deputy National Police Chief General Surachate Hakparn tell of questioning the former Cambodian Police Chief Neth Savoeun who on August 22nd last became a Deputy Prime Minister in the new government of Prime Minister Hun Manet, the son and heir of Cambodian strongman and virtual dictator Hun Sen who has been in power for over four decades.

Thailand’s top cop General Surachate Hakparn last week explained how he questioned the Cambodian Police and former Cambodian Police Chief Neth Savoeun, now a Deputy Prime Minister in the regime of Hun Manet, over a police operation in April 2022 when a Thai task force targeted 3,000 Thai people held hostage by scammer gangs in Cambodia. The news comes as a US non-governmental organisation (NGO) official estimates that the online cybercrime industry run by Chinese organised crime gangs in that country may be generating as much as 37.64% of Cambodia’s projected GDP for 2023 while the US State Department believes that there are at least 10,000 foreigners held in bondage behind the eastern kingdom’s borders. A United Nations report last Tuesday authored by an official working at the body’s Bangkok regional headquarters suggests that figure could be as high as 100,000 with an even greater number of people enslaved in the country’s troubled western neighbour, Myanmar.

Cambodia is home to thousands of call centres being operated primarily by Chinese organised crime rackets, many of them linked to a senior advisor to the newly installed Prime Minister Hun Manet, Senator Ly Yong Phat (centre) whose vast business empire appears to own properties in which these activities are taking place. The situation in Cambodia and the wider problem in Southeast Asia was highlighted last week in a New York Times exposé and a UN report authored by an official based at its Regional Headquarters in Bangkok and introduced last Tuesday by UN Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk in Geneva. The situation was underscored in the minds of the public in Thailand last week when a 43-year-old man murdered his family which had fallen victim to a Cambodian cybercrime operation based in Poipet near Thailand’s Sa Kaeo Province prompting an investigation led by Deputy National Police Chief Surachate Hakparn who was quoted by the US-based newspaper last Tuesday as sceptical of former Cambodian police chief, now Deputy Prime Minister Neth Savoeun (left) and operations led by Cambodian Police to counter the problem.

Just 24 hours after a tragedy was reported in Samut Prakan province just outside Bangkok on Monday 28th August when 43-year-old Sanich Dokmai murdered his family, triggered by a ฿1.7 million loss to an online scam loan application in Cambodia, the United Nations Human Rights Office in Geneva launched a report claiming that hundreds of thousands of people are being forced to work in call centre gangs located in both Myanmar and Cambodia with workers held in bondage also in adjacent countries such as Laos, the Philippines and Thailand.

The report was launched by UN Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk, an Austrian international law expert who called for tougher action from countries around the world to address the problem.

UN Commissioner Volker Turk pleads that those coerced by gangs to operate online fraud scams be treated as victims and not held criminally responsible

Mr Turk, specifically, pleaded with enforcement authorities to treat those involved as victims of crime rather than criminals.

He said such individuals were subject to ‘inhumane treatment while being forced to carry out crimes.’

The report last week was authored by Ms Pia Oberoi, an Oxford University-educated senior advisor on migration and human rights attached to the Asia-Pacific Regional headquarters of the United Nations Human Rights Office in Bangkok.

Ms Pia addressed the apparent impunity with which such operations are carried out in countries on Thailand’s borders and also the sheer scale of the problem, which has meant that in troubled countries such as Cambodia, where GDP is retarded through lack of development and corruption, such enterprises become a significant part of these country’s GDP or economic output.

‘It’s so incredibly lucrative that there is very little political will to address this holistically, really slowing it down, other than the actors relocating their operations when there is some law enforcement pressure,’ Ms Pia wrote.

United Nationals report author working at Bangkok regional headquarters questions the impunity enjoyed by criminal networks in Cambodia and Myanmar

She added that she thought that the operators of such enterprises were ‘being protected in certain ways by the authorities.’

The report by the United Nations estimated that there were 100,000 such trafficked people involved with the cybercrime centres being operated in Cambodia while a further 120,000 were forced to work in war-torn Myanmar while tens of thousands were employed by the industry in Laos, the Philippines and Thailand. 

The report was published by the United Nations in Geneva on Tuesday the 29th of August and specified the pursuit of cybercrime activity ranging from romance investment scams, originally controlled exclusively by Nigerian gangs, to cryptocurrency fraud and the growing business of illegal online gambling which is a particularly potent threat to the public in Thailand.

Threat of cybercrime scams hit home in the early hours of August 28th in Samut Prakan when a man slaughtered his wife and children in a frenzied attack

The threat of cybercrime activity was brought home to the public 24 hours before the report was published when police in Samut Prakan raided a home just after midnight on Monday 28th August to find a man, a responsible and hardworking logistics manager, in a frenzy caused by stress and trauma, had murdered his dutiful 45-year-old wife and two school going children in response to acute stress caused by a tragic situation that had developed within the household

His wife tried to remedy the problem that arose after her husband became a guarantor for an auto loan taken out by 43-year-old Mr Sanich Dokmai’s employer which was subsequently not repaid.

On the 25th of August, Mr Sanich’s wife, Wiraphon, reported to Bang Kaeo Police Station in Samut Prakan that she had become the victim of an online scam posing as a loan service. 

Investigators responding to the disturbing crime on Monday morning 28th of August quickly established that Ms Wiraphon had borrowed ฿1.7 million from close friends and relatives to wire to the online loan application service to generate online financing to pay off the outstanding car loan which had already led to advanced legal proceedings from Thailand’s Legal Execution Department which would have seen the family’s three-story townhouse seized by the government and sold at auction.

Story struck a chord with the Thai public last week leading to the mobilisation of a police response

Instead, she had lost all the newly borrowed money originating from short-term facilities extended by close friends, thus exacerbating the family’s already perilous financial position and throwing her husband into a state of trauma.

The story generated shock and revulsion in equal measure early last week among the Thai public prompting action from Deputy National Police Chief General Surachate Hakparn who immediately took control of the case. 

Massive police response to the case of a family murdered by father after ฿1.7 million scam loss last week
Thai and Cambodian police reveal that young woman’s ‘organ harvesting’ claims were a lie

It was not long before investigators found that the money had been transferred via a series of bank accounts before being withdrawn by a 19-year-old Thai woman in Sa Kaeo Province and transferred across the border from Thailand to Cambodia to the town of Poipet which appeared to be the headquarters of the cybercrime operation which had defrauded the family sparking the murderous rampage.

On Tuesday evening, Thai police arrested Ms Suchada Chabutsri as she made her way back from Poipet across the Sa Kaeo border with the Eastern Kingdom.

She was merely a mule, a low player in the criminal operation but ultimately indispensable to its execution.

Arrest of Thai woman in Sa Kaeo Province confirmed that the online crime gang responsible for the Samut Prakan murders worked from Cambodia

She was detained by Sa Kaeo Immigration Bureau police and sent to Bang Kaeo Police Station in Samut Prakan where investigators had already issued six arrest warrants including one for the young woman.

This led to General Surachate Hakparn signalling his intention to visit Cambodia as a UN report was launched in Geneva and the top Thai police officer was quoted in the New York Times questioning the bona fides of the Cambodian Police Force in dealing with an April 2022 mission to rescue 3,000 Thai nationals thought to be held by Cambodian cyber crime mills in April 2022.

General Surachate suggested sabotage of the mission launched by a Thai task force which saw only 100 Thais eventually rescued and repatriated with most left behind.

Senior Cambodian police officer questions UN claims

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Cambodian police, Deputy Police Chief Chhay Kim Khoeun raised serious doubts about the numbers claimed in the UN report to be held by such gangs in Cambodia. 

‘I don’t know how to respond, where did they get the 100,000 number from? Have they investigated? Where did they get the data? Foreigners are just saying things,’ the senior police officer responded. 

The UN report noted that there had been an alarming rise in the activities of such scam centre operations and fraud mills which in the last two decades have been mostly driven out of Thailand. 

The UN report suggested that the monies being generated by such operations were in billions of dollars.

To put this in context, Mr Jacob Sims, an operative with a US-based Christian non-profit organisation, International Justice Mission, which works primarily at combating sex trafficking and illegal sex networks in Southeast Asia, but has recently taken an interest in the growing significance of this sort of criminal activity, estimated that the amount of revenue being generated by coordinated organised crime networks in Cambodia linked with business people at the highest level who work hand in hand with the Cambodian regime and Chinese investors could be generating more than $12 billion per year. 

The US Christian NGO estimate means these Cambodian gangs may be earning a figure that would represent 37.64% of Cambodia’s projected GDP by the end of 2023. It would be 40% of Cambodia’s 2022 GDP of $29.96 billion according to the World Bank.

Top Cambodian businessman, Senator and close adviser to Prime Minister Hun Manet linked to online scam centres and activities in the country in reports

It is also important to note that the operation of these scam centres are very much linked to the influx of Chinese players and investment in hot spots such as Myanmar, Laos and the Golden Triangle, which are also identified by the United Nations report as home to a growing number of such online fraud mills as well as Cambodia. 

The publication of the UN report last Tuesday came on the same day as a New York Times exposé on the subject.

It identified a leading Cambodian businessman who has just been appointed as a key advisor to new Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet as a key player with links to such scam operations.

The report highlights that Senator Ly Yong Phat was not directly implicated in the operations of the scam centres but had consistent links to properties and locations where such nefarious activities were found to be active. 

65-year-old Ly Yong Phat is one of Cambodia’s leading business figures.

He owns the conglomerate LYP Group which is involved in the tobacco, electricity, casino and tourism industries but the business empire has long been linked with questionable labour practices and forced land evictions.

Dominant figure in southwestern Koh Kong province has long been the subject of labour abuse allegations

The Cambodian politician and tycoon is very active in Cambodia in funnelling Chinese investment into the kingdom and played a key part in the financing of the Koh Kong Bridge from Koh Kong province in Cambodia to Pyam near the Thai border which was inaugurated in 2002.

The Cambodian senator and businessman is a dominant figure in the southwestern province of Koh Kong which has been identified by authorities in India, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand as having links to illegal scam centre operations being operated in secure compounds, many of which are either directly or indirectly controlled by Senator Ly Yong Phat.

The Senator has also been associated with the use of trafficked labour on his extensive sugar cane concessions in the province.

US State Department figures suggest a smaller number of people held in cyber crime mills at 10,000 trafficked people from four states including Thailand

A recent US State Department report estimates more conservatively that there were approximately 10,000 people trapped in such compounds in Cambodia with most of the victims coming from China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand.

These reports were further confirmed by a bulletin from Interpol in June this year which suggested a higher figure across Southeast Asia but particularly Myanmar and Laos as growth centres where such cybercrime installations were growing in numbers and reach.

In April 2022, General Surachate Hakparn led an intense campaign by the Royal Thai Police to repatriate Thai victims of such gangs from Cambodia to Thailand following intense unease among the public with families making complaints to authorities of loved ones being duped and trapped abroad.

At the time, General Surachate was confident that he and his task force had identified the location of 3,000 Thai citizens who were being detained in such facilities against their will.

He subsequently led raids in association with the Cambodian Police on the cybercrime compounds but was quoted by the New York Times in its report last Tuesday as being less than impressed by the performance of the Cambodian Police last year.

Thailand’s top cop not impressed by Cambodian police efforts to deal with rampant cybercrime trafficking describing it as ‘all drama’

General Surachate described the activities of Cambodia’s Police as being ‘all drama’ and this corresponds with recent reports of governmental and non-government organisations which suggest that Cambodian law enforcement has been placed in an invidious position in not being able to robustly tackle the problem in the country because it is being indirectly run by allies and supporters of the government at the highest level in conjunction with Chinese investors.

The same pattern emerges in Laos which is currently suffering an economic crisis because of the country’s debt load to China and reduced GDP output as well as the Golden Triangle where the escalating civil war in Myanmar has meant even greater influence by Chinese kingpins and crime organisations, as is the case in other provinces in Myanmar.

In last week’s report on the situation, Ms Pichamon Yeophantong, the chairperson of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, clarified that high-ranking politicians and business people such as Senator Ly Yong Phat in Cambodia, while they may not be directly linked at this time to human rights abuses, must bear responsibility for the escalating problem ‘by virtue of their linkage to those businesses operating within the compounds.’

Physical abuse is not routine say UN report authors although New York Times exposé tells of one Filipino man who was beaten with baseball bats and bars

The authors of the reports also were at pains to play down reports of physical abuse or torture of the victims being held against their will with many being told that they had to pay off debts to the cybercrime operators before they could be allowed on their way home.

However, one recent report of physical abuse being suffered by a trafficked migrant related to a Filipino national identified as Mr Nathan who was promised a job as a customer service representative working in Thailand.

The Filipino man was eventually transported to a compound near the Cambodian-Thai border which was surrounded by barbed wire and high walls.

On his first day at work in the compound, he was told that instead of working as a customer service representative he would be working as an online romance scammer targeting British and American online users seeking love on dating websites and applications such as Tinder.

In this instance, Mr Nathan was beaten by his employers when he demanded to be freed from his contract and allowed to return to Manila.

It is understood that reporters for the New York Times travelled to the compound identified by Mr Nathan to find that it belonged to Senator Ly Yong Phat, a fact which was communicated to the reporters by local officials. 

Mr Nathan showed photographs of the injuries he suffered after being beaten by six men with baseball bats and metal pipes after asking to be allowed to return home.

Mysteriously, his captors, within days, relented to his request and allowed him to leave.

General Surachate says he confronted Cambodia’s former police chief and now Deputy Prime Minister in 2022 over Thai rescue mission in Sihanoukville

Meanwhile, General Surachate in last week’s news report, claimed that the efforts of the Cambodian Police, often in response to requests for cooperation from Thai police, were found lacking in 2022 with no effort to track down and arrest the ‘big fish’ involved in these online scam operations.

General Surachate heads up a task force within the Royal Thai Police which is involved in combating human trafficking both inside and outside Thailand in conjunction with international police agencies across the world, particularly in the United States and China.

Neth Savoeun was Cambodia’s National Police Chief from 2008 until Tuesday, August 22nd last when he was appointed a Deputy Prime Minister under new Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet, the son of Cambodia’s strong man Hun Sen who has wielded power in Cambodia for over four decades and, it is thought, continues to do so.

The former police boss played a key role while in office in cracking down on political dissent within the kingdom, which now, for all intents and purposes, has become a one-party state and dictatorship ruled by a single family.

In the New York Times report last week, General Surachate Hakparn suggested the former Cambodian police chief refused to answer his questions after he believed last year’s police operation, which was the brainchild of the Royal Thai Police task force, had been undermined.

Thai captives moved after tip-off

General Surachate recalled targeting a hotel in the resort city of Sihanoukville which is a prime target for Chinese investors and lately has become a hive of activities for such cybercrime mills.

The senior police officer explained that he believed Thai captives were being held on the 7th, 8th and 9th floors of a hotel building in the city.

The Thai policeman said as he was on the move towards the hotel with the assistance of Cambodian police, he received a tip-off to say that the Thai hostages or workers had been moved out. 

The Thai deputy police chief, known affectionately in Thailand as Big Joke, says he confronted the Cambodian police chief over this but was unable to get a satisfactory answer. 

‘He deflected saying the hotel owner didn’t cooperate,’ Police General Surachate explained.

Awaiting answers over last week’s outrage

In the meantime, Thais still wait to hear answers about those ultimately behind the fake loan application service which triggered the murder of a wife and her two sons last Monday morning in Samut Prakan.

The kingdom’s police authorities are relying on a campaign launched in July by outgoing National Police Chief General Damrongsak Kittiprapas to better inform the public in Thailand so that online users are more aware and familiar with such threats as the best possible protection. 

Figures released by the police chief in July showed that between March 1st, 2022 and June 30th, 2023 there were no less than 287,122 criminal cases linked to cybercrime activity in Thailand resulting in a loss of up to ฿40 billion.

However, those who are in the most danger from these online cybercrime centres which spread evil and suffering are, perversely, those who most need to work and earn money while at the other end of the applications, those seeking loans and a way to pay bills or debts are also those most susceptible to the evil which presented itself from across Thailand’s border on the days and hours running up to August 25th when a responsible mother tried to help her family out of one debt trap only to be landed in a nightmarish crisis which led to her murder and that of her young sons just three days later.

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Further reading:

Massive police response to the case of a family murdered by father after ฿1.7 million scam loss last week

Debt and ฿1.7 million loss to scammers drive man to murder his wife and two sons in Samut Prakan

Loan shark arrested in Nonthaburi for bullying a borrower charged an annual interest rate of 730%

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