Updated: Jul 3
Slavery is ancient, abhorrent and alive, in the age of cryptocurrency and social media. In fact, it is through cryptocurrency, social media and other remote work/internet technologies that modern slavery has continued and broadened its destructive tentacles. There is currently a thriving cottage industry in Southeast Asia (SEA) where semi-legal enterprises deceptively recruit guest workers to online businesses (call centres, digital marketing, translation, etc)  In actuality, these companies are running massive boiler room scams that are behind the recent surge of relationship-investment frauds (i.e. pig-butchering scams) worldwide , usually via cryptocurrency. Recruits are trapped and forced to work on online gambling, investment frauds and sextortions their companies run. Lives are ruined on both ends -- in the slavery that fuels the criminal enterprises, and in the output, which is the proliferation of sophisticated cybercrimes.
Recording from inside a scam compound
In these human trafficking (HT) cases, unemployed men and women are deceived by recruiters or online ads about overseas jobs in Cambodia, Thailand or other SEA countries , if not outright kidnapped. Upon arriving, the recruits are trapped for months to years and forced to run the unsavoury parts of online scams  and/or held for ransom to their families . They are taught to target users of social media and dating apps and to patiently drive victims online into burning through all their moneys on well-scripted schemes. Non-performers can suffer beatings , electrocutions and rape , among others, and are frequently sold off as labour to other companies like chattel.
The numbers involved in this human trade are not trivial. It has its roots in Chinese telecom fraud and illegal gambling industry targeting the mainland Chinese, so Chinese citizens comprise most HT victims of SEA scam syndicates at ~80%, followed by Taiwanese, Chinese Malaysians, then Thai, Vietnamese and other nationalities. Chinese media has reported that 300,000 Chinese are employed as online scammers in SEA  (note that their primary target, China, has a population of 1.4 billion). Trafficking of Chinese citizens has been so severe, the Chinese government has implemented draconian measures on its citizens heading to and returning from high-risk countries , as well as awareness campaigns about syndicates targeting its citizens on those countries. Likewise, Thai police has tried cross-border operations aimed at saving an alleged 3,000 of its citizens that have been trafficked into Cambodia to do scams . As the scam syndicates are expanding their reach to the “foreign” non-Chinese market, they have been recently trafficking also English-speaking South Asians ,.
It is hard to determine numbers of the truly captive, as they range from a few plucked off the street, screwed over, those who knew but naively thought they can easily get out, to the free agents who get promoted and rotate through different scam companies. However these schemes are time-consuming, labour intensive and morally degrading, hence the reliance on large numbers of indentured labour. Also, in absence of labour protections inside the large “technology parks”, “special economic zones” and private real estate projects where many alleged scam companies are based, wanton human rights abuses are quite plausible and almost expected. And in light of well-documented beatings, starvation, rape and other abuses that happen to guest workers, local authorities are almost singularly concerned only with the HT victims’ visa statuses .
The principal perpetrators profit off the backs of indentured workers and scam victims. It is hard to quantify the economic and opportunity cost to HT victims, but there is data on the criminal earnings of these “fraud factories”. In 2021 online romance-investment frauds of the kind perfected on China by these SEA scams companies (so-called pig-butchering scam) has netted $429 million in losses from only 4,325 victims in the US , which averages an astounding $100,000 loss per victim! This is likely still much under-reporting and does not include the other online investment frauds they perpetrate on US residents, which should approach $1 billion . Other countries have seen similar numbers when adjusted for their own currencies. From estimates on the blockchain, tens of billions of US dollars’ worth of cryptocurrency has been reaped by the SEA scam boiler room companies . These numbers still do not count wire fraud, which predominated earlier, and which we estimate to be ~30% of the amounts defrauded in 2021 . Finally, numbers from China itself, the original target of the SEA fraud factories, Chinese police reports of just pig butchering scams in 2020 amounted to 40 Billion RMB in 2020  -- $5.7 Billion USD – not yet including gambling scams.
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