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Caught in the web 

Tricked by a promised IT job, Abdus Salam’s ordeal in Cambodia’s scam compounds sheds light on surviving a shadow economy

SINGAPORE (ANN/THE STRAITS TIMES) – In 2022, Abdus Salam from Bangladesh believed he had secured a well-paying IT position in Cambodia, prompting his family to mortgage their property to afford the recruitment charges. 

However, upon arrival, he found himself coerced into scamming activities, trapped within three different scam operations for a duration of five months until his liberation in September 2022.

Now back in Bangladesh, the 27-year-old Salam works as a survivor empowerment officer with the Humanity Research Consultancy (HRC), where he aids in the repatriation of individuals ensnared in similar scam operations.

Abdus Salam is now a survivor empowerment officer with the Humanity Research Consultancy. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ABDUS SALAM

In a conversation with The Straits Times via Zoom from Bangladesh in March, Salam highlighted that scammers target not just migrant laborers but also educated individuals with offers of high-paying jobs.

The Global Anti-Scam Organisation (Gaso) played a crucial role in Salam’s rescue from the scamming network. He has since shared his harrowing tale of human trafficking with Time magazine, shedding light on the dark underbelly of fraudulent employment schemes.

In early 2022, the engineering graduate accepted an IT job in Cambodia through a broker, who was a trusted childhood friend.

The job promised a USD1,000 (SGD1,300) monthly salary, five times more than in Bangladesh. His parents mortgaged their land and raised about USD3,000 to pay the recruitment fees.

After his flight landed in Phnom Penh, Bangladeshi brokers brought him to an office, where a man interviewed him for the job.

Then, he was sent on a nine-hour car ride to Long Bay in Dara Sakor, a special economic zone about 250km away from Phnom Penh with tourism projects owned by a Chinese conglomerate.

Abdus Salam’s office in Long Bay, where he was ordered to contact hundreds of victims and execute pig-butchering scams. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ABDUS SALAM

Long Bay was flagged as a scam compound in an August 2022 Al Jazeera report. Quoting police sources, it reported at least 50 people have been rescued from the area.

Salam worked in a building beside a luxury casino hotel. His workplace resembled an office, complete with desktop computers and chairs. Then, he was asked to create fake social media accounts.

Salam said: “I was confused why I was creating fake accounts… so (I realised) this was fraud. You just have to obey all the orders because you are a slave, you have been sold to them.”

Those who did not comply or meet targets were tortured or even killed, he said.

He was ordered to contact hundreds of victims daily in pig-butchering scams – a type of scam in which scammers build relationships with victims and convince them to invest in bogus investment schemes.

A study found that pig-butchering scam victims around the world have lost more than USD75 billion. Salam said his supervisor told him to target Singaporeans as Singapore was rich, with many business-minded young people ready to invest.

The supervisor boasted he once cheated a Singaporean of more than USD300,000. Salam said he tried to con two or three Singaporean men into investing in bogus investment platforms.

One of the fake Facebook profiles Mr Salam created was a half-Asian, half-Western woman named “Anna Huang”. He used this profile to build a relationship with victims before conning them. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ABDUS SALAM

The men, aged between 25 and 35, thought they were texting a young woman. But it was just a persona created with photos scraped from social media profiles.

Salam does not know if the men lost money, as he was sold to another scam compound midway through their conversations. But he said they sounded convinced.

He said: “Almost everyone believed us. Not just Singaporeans. The way we presented the story, people believed it was true.”

In the five months between April 1 and Sept 4, 2022, Mr Salam was sold to three different scam compounds in Cambodia for between USD3,500 and USD10,000 each time.

A report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Aug 29, 2023, said hundreds of thousands of people were being forced by criminal gangs to work in scam and illegal gambling centres in Southeast Asia.

Victims came from Africa, the Middle East, China and across South-east Asia, including Singapore.

In October 2023, law enforcement agencies from 27 countries, including Singapore, launched operations that led to the rescue of 149 human trafficking victims and the arrest of 281 people.

The total number of scam cases in Singapore hit a record high in 2023, with 46,563 cases reported and victims losing SGD651.8 million.

Salam learnt how to create characters tailored to victims and to prey on their emotions.

He said: “If someone is looking for a girlfriend, we become their girlfriend. If anyone wants to build a friendship, we become their good friend who can share everything with them.”

He created nearly 100 fake profiles across different social media platforms.

Salam was held in the Long Bay scam compound in Cambodia for about a month before he was sold to another scam compound. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ABDUS SALAM

He does not know how many victims he conned, but said he earned only about USD600 in the five months, which was spent on meals.

Deliverance came when a colleague contacted Gaso, and Salam was rescued in September 2022. He declined to divulge details as it might compromise Gaso’s operations.

HRC founder and director Mina Chiang said deceptive jobs usually provide accommodation, flight tickets and other benefits.

She said: “It essentially indicates that jobseekers will be living in the working locations, which is the management style that we see in scam compounds.”

She added that these jobs often do not state employers’ names clearly, or the employers’ registration information does not exist as they are criminal entities. Salam said if job seekers are offered only a tourist visa and not a work visa, they should reject the job.

He said: “And if anyone says it’s a crypto-selling and marketing job, or a casino job, then they should run from that company.”