Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Why Chinese scammers may still be running Cambodia’s ‘sin city’ amid crackdowns

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“The focus on law enforcement and raids will most likely lead to geographic shifts rather than lasting impact,” he added. “If past experience is any indication, business will be back in a few months.”

According to local reports, some Chinese workers who had been on a Lunar New Year break avoided being rounded up by delaying their return to Sihanoukville, while others reportedly checked into hotels to avoid being caught at their work stations.

02:46

‘I was beaten quite often’: Victim recounts experience with Cambodia scam operation

‘I was beaten quite often’: Victim recounts experience with Cambodia scam operation

Police raids usually target relatively small and obscure scam operations, said Huang Yan, a Chinese reporter based in Cambodia who monitors scam-related news for the Chinese-language news outlet Angkor Observer, including workers believed to be scamming their nationals in Thai, Vietnamese and Khmer languages.

But after the crackdown, Sihanoukville’s governor Kuoch Chamroeun appealed on Facebook for information about Zhong Huokun, a Chinese national suspected of owning one of the two raided premises.

“Before this crackdown, they always arrested the low-level staff members, but they did not catch many general managers of the scam groups, and they never reached the level of the scam compound owners,” Yan said. “This is the first time, so it’s very interesting.”

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In recent years, authorities have cleaned Sihanoukville’s beaches of rubbish, backpacker bars and cheap hostels, as the city centre filled with restaurants and stores catering to the Chinese and Southeast Asian expat populations. The city remains littered with skeletons of skyscrapers – the vestige of the surge of investments which fell apart as Cambodia banned online gambling in early 2020 and the pandemic decimated tourist arrivals.

Cambodia instead emerged in 2021 as the hub for the scam crisis which has ripped through the world, initially targeting Chinese nationals but swiftly moving to anyone with an internet connection.

The UN Office on Drugs on Crime has described the Mekong casino sector as a parallel banking system aiding underground businesses to launder billions of dollars – money all heavily enabled by fast and largely obscured cryptocurrency trades.

Scam businesses have since emerged in other hubs, including the Philippines, Myanmar, Laos and even Dubai, but operators have learned to move quickly to new compounds to evade government crackdowns. Most recently, scam workers in Myanmar were reported to have crossed into Cambodia after a Chinese government-led crackdown on towns hosting major scam parks.

Under pressure from Southeast Asian neighbours as well as top regional investor China, Cambodian officials have carried out investigations, causing a temporary slowdown on the coastal town’s enterprises.

But the scam gangs refuse to leave the kingdom, among the poorest countries in the region.

03:33

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Money and power

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet, the son of long-serving premier and ruling party president Hun Sen, in February said he wanted to suspend gambling licences and that he had ordered provincial governors to “inspect gambling venues at the local level of their jurisdiction”.

Though he did not elaborate on who could face increased regulatory scrutiny, an official from the Economy and Finance Ministry told This Week in Asia that none of the nearly 200 permanent and temporary casino licences already issued had been suspended.

Cambodians are banned from gambling, but the sector thrives through casinos attracting foreigners, as well as the underground gambling, sports betting and scams conducted online.

Cambodia’s scam businesses reportedly slowed after a series of raids in 2022, but Sihanoukville now appears to be back in business.

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Anecdotally, there are more foreigners coming into Cambodia for work, from both nearby countries such as Indonesia, as well as from African nations such as Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt, with fears the available work may ultimately be in cyber scams.

Ros Phirun, of the Economy and Finance Ministry’s commercial gambling department, said he expected there would be better control over the sector after Cambodia reformed its licence requirements to include higher fees and revenue to gain gambling permits.

“Of course, we understand that the quantity of licensees will be reduced, but the quality ones will be enhanced,” he said.

But renewed attention on their activities does not seem to have spooked the Sihanoukville scam businesses, according to a representative for CyberScamMonitor, an open-source platform that has played a key role in mapping the evolution of the global scam and online gambling industry.

“While some have been leaving over the past few days, we have not yet heard any reports of the same kind of exodus this time,” the representative added, requesting anonymity given the dangers of the work.

The CyberScamMonitor source said the industry had deeply embedded in Cambodia, with evidence of “powerful elite actors” benefiting from it and ensuring its survival.

“To truly tackle the industry and address the reputational damage it has done, a comprehensive and sustained crackdown is needed, along with legal action against the key figures running or protecting the industry.”

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