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Southeast Asian Police, Prosecutors Join Forces to Fight ‘Scamdemic’ 

FILE - A computer keyboard lit by a displayed cyber code is seen in this illustration picture. In a few short years, scamming hubs bilking billions of dollars out of victims across the globe have set up shop in Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and, increasingly, Myanmar.
FILE - A computer keyboard lit by a displayed cyber code is seen in this illustration picture. In a few short years, scamming hubs bilking billions of dollars out of victims across the globe have set up shop in Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and, increasingly, Myanmar.

Police and prosecutors across Southeast Asia are forging new ways of working together to thwart and pursue the sprawling criminal networks behind the online scam centers that have quickly taken root in the region, experts involved in the effort have told VOA.

In a few short years, scamming hubs bilking billions of dollars out of victims across the globe have set up shop in Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and, increasingly, Myanmar.

The United Nations estimates that hundreds of thousands of often unwitting job seekers have been lured into the operations with promises of jobs that do not exist, only to be trapped and forced to run the scams under threat of torture and even death.

Experts say the international scope of the “scamdemic” demands a coordinated response from the region’s law enforcement.

“This issue of human trafficking into forced criminality is far more transnational than any human trafficking situation that I’ve seen before,” said Andrew Wasuwongse, Thailand country director for the International Justice Mission, which helps trafficking victims and works with local authorities to foil the traffickers.

“It’s also far more sophisticated, so the need for local and international law enforcement collaboration is really important,” he said. “The need has never been greater.”

Because the criminal networks running the scams span borders, so does the evidence needed to catch them, meaning the problem “cannot be addressed unilaterally,” added Marika McAdam, who has consulted for the U.N. and others on the issue.

“In order to do anything effective about this, it has to involve affected countries, of which there are many,” said McAdam.

They and others say that collaboration has started and is gaining pace.

“Cooperation has picked up over the past years, resulting in some of the raids we have seen but also the repatriation of people rescued from scam compounds,” said Benedikt Hofmann, deputy representative of the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime for Southeast Asia and the Pacific (UNODC).

“We are seeing increased information sharing and a focus on the issue as countries cooperate across jurisdictions, for example prosecutors working together,” he said, adding that some of the raids “wouldn’t have been possible without operational coordination.”

He cited operations in Cambodia and Myanmar that freed trafficking victims or shut down scam centers, and said the information authorities are sharing also includes intelligence on suspects and on how they may be moving their dirty money across borders.

But he said those efforts have been mostly ad hoc and limited in area and scope, which allows the criminal networks to set up elsewhere in the region, usually where a government’s reach and oversight is weakest in a practice dubbed “jurisdiction shopping.”

The UNODC is trying to disrupt that by helping the region mount a more comprehensive counterattack. In September, together with ASEAN and China, where many of the networks — and their victims — hail from, it launched a “roadmap” to do just that.

The plan calls on the countries to share more information about the scam centers within each of their borders and to set up dedicated national teams spanning government agencies to tackle the problem. Those teams are meant to work with each other and meet annually. Hofmann said the countries were still working on putting their teams together.

“As long as [the] countries want to help each other, that will be very helpful,” Col. Jay Guillermo, who runs the cyber response unit of the Philippines police force’s Anti-Cybercrime Group, said of the roadmap.

Just last week, the UNODC also co-hosted a two-day meeting in Thailand of prosecutors and law enforcement officials from around the region on collaborating and finding better ways to prosecute trafficking cases tied to the scam centers through their courts.

Wasuwongse, whose group also helped organize the meeting, said it was the first of its kind for Southeast Asia.

McAdam, though, said most of the cross-border cooperation taking place is limited to rescuing the scam centers’ trafficking victims and that the collaboration needs to evolve into using those rescues as evidence to arrest, try and convict those running the networks.

“We really need to link the pieces of the puzzle to get at those perpetrators. But those puzzle pieces are strewn across borders, so unless we are actually linking the evidence that victims both are and may bring with more proactive evidence of who’s behind it, we are never actually going to combat the organized crime perpetrating this,” she said.

The countries were starting to “lean” in that direction, she added, but were “miles off” from where they need to be.

Wasuwongse sees progress in that direction too.

He recalled a case from last year in which Thailand agreed to allow a group of Thais rescued and repatriated from a scam center in the Philippines to participate virtually in a related court case back in the Philippines to give evidence.

He said the International Justice Mission was also helping Thailand and the Philippines prosecute the alleged criminals behind another scamming operation and joined Thai police on a recent trip to the Philippines to work on the case.

“So, we’re seeing some efforts on this,” Wasuwongse said.

But the experts agreed that progress was slow, hampered by the complexity of the problem.

They said authorities in different countries were still working with disparate definitions of human trafficking, meaning a scam center worker treated as a trafficking victim in one country may be tagged a migrant worker or a criminal in another, and suggested they all agree on a shared standard.

Guillermo also complained of the slow pace at which useful evidence for prosecutions was crossing borders and suggested Southeast Asian countries work on standardizing related laws and definitions.

“It’s very hard to implement because laws are [lagging] behind [the scammers’] technology. Improving the laws will benefit [all] countries. We should have the same interpretation in terms of cybercrime cases, because cybercrime cases cross boundaries,” he said.

As with most lucrative criminal enterprises in the region, the experts said corruption also remained a big barrier to closer cooperation.

Many of the scam centers in Myanmar operate under the umbrella of armed groups tied to the military, which seized control of the country three years ago. In Cambodia, several reports and investigations have linked some of its scam centers to powerful local political figures.

“When it comes to transnational organized crime, and often trafficking in persons, there’s always some element of corruption, especially when there are massive amounts of money being generated,” Wasuwongse said. “So, I am sure there are barriers in the region to effectively combating this because of where some of that money might be flowing.”