Fighting Thailand's 'scamdemic'
Special report: Industrial-scale online crime in 'lawless' border areas in neighbouring countries is growing in volume and sophistication
published : 17 May 2023 at 06:43
updated: 30 May 2023 at 10:44
newspaper section: News
writer: Dave Kendall
The April 8 arrest in Bangkok of a Chinese woman with Thai citizenship alleged to be the leader of a criminal syndicate involved in fraud, surrogacy and human trafficking is just one recent example of an increasingly sophisticated crime wave inside Thailand.
In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Pol Gen Surachate Hakparn, a deputy national police chief, said a police probe revealed a significant threat from organised crime activities involving Chinese gangs.
Many of these gangs, however, are preying on Thais from outside the country. In 2021, scam calls in Thailand increased by 270%.
Police think the 50,000 complaints they receive represent less than half the number of people actually scammed. The number of scammers at work in our region is now believed to be in the tens of thousands.
Many -- if not most -- of the scammers, however, are not inside the kingdom. Instead, they're operating in high-tech scam centres in lawless areas and supposed "special economic zones" just across the border in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, from where they tap into the country's outstanding telecommunications infrastructure to find their "customers".
The industrial-scale scamming -- and how it was supercharged by the Covid-19 pandemic -- was exposed in Dominic Faulder's "Scamdemic" article in Nikkei Asia, which has gone on to win three international journalism awards.
Faulder describes how one Thai scammer was lured to Poipet in Cambodia on the promise of a lucrative job. He ended up with a Chinese overlord but decided to risk his life in a bid to escape his clutches after one scam victim blew his brains out on camera after pleading for the return of his money.
"It's not an uncommon story," Faulder told the Bangkok Post's Deeper Dive podcast.
"There's quite a lot of reports of suicides related to scams, people who just lose everything."
The scammers have often been scammed themselves. "People see these advertisements on social media that promise jobs that are relatively high-paying…they go through an agent who takes them to the border, Myanmar, Laos, but mostly still in Cambodia, and they're smuggled across. Then they lose their passports, so they get stuck. They are basically defenceless."
By numerous accounts, a mammoth scam centre has sprung up in the Myanmar border town of Shwe Kokko Myaing, a partnership between expat Chinese investors and the Karen Border Guard Force working under the Myanmar military.
The ability of the town nicknamed "Scam City" to access Thailand's excellent telecommunications infrastructure is apparently aided by a string of cell towers just across the Moei River in Tak province.
"They're in the cornfields, and they're basically facing Shwe Kokko," Faulder said.
"We're not pointing fingers at anybody -- any operator will tell you immediately that they can't be responsible for what their systems are being used for. Systems are used for criminal activities all the time. The question is whether those towers should be where they are.
"The telephone system is clearly being used for scamming. Everybody knows that, and the police are right up against it."
Two Thai cell towers facing a development across the Moei River in Myanmar, south of Myawaddy and Mae Sot in 2022. It is believed the complex consists mainly of dormitory buildings whose residents include suspected scammers.
Humans have scammed one another since the days of the wandering snake-oil salesman, and some online cons are updated versions of traditional ruses. A new breed, however, uses the latest technology to fool their victims.
"People are called and told they are suspected of being involved in drug smuggling and are about to be arrested. Then they're asked if they would like to speak to the police officer in charge of their case, and they say yes please, and a policeman comes on the screen.
"He's got a copy of your ID card, reads out the number, looks at you and compares you to the picture."
Behind the policeman on-screen, the noise and bustle of a police station is in full swing. But the station is actually a film set built in a casino just across the Thai border in Cambodia. The officer in this particular scam did, in fact, serve with the Royal Thai Police, but he's gone rogue.
"They're former policemen, so they know the game. They have the uniforms, the jargon, everything. I was informed that a particular casino in Poipet has two police stations, a DSI office, and I think a public prosecutor's office."
Now comes the hook.
"The "policeman" goes soft on them and says 'Maybe you're innocent, let's check your accounts and see what the movements are like.'"
That "checking" involves sending money to the so-called police account.
"I don't know why they do this, but somehow they're taken in, they're so in awe of being in the presence of a police investigation that they do it, they empty their accounts. They're told that in 20 minutes the money will be back…and of course, that's the last they ever see of it."
In this case, the entire police station is a set with paid actors. But widely-available AI-based apps now enable scammers to take the image and voice of a real person -- a senior police officer, a celebrity, an expert or anyone else -- and put other people's words into their mouths to make the scam frighteningly realistic.
With the use of this "deep fake" technology expanding exponentially and the worldwide volume of online fraud far beyond the ability of authorities -- some of them corrupted by the gangsters in charge -- to control, Faulder says the only defence against the scamdemic is "cybervaccination".
"It's a massive public education campaign. Warn people that this is going on, make them vigilant…and if someone offers you something too good to be true, it is too good to be true.
"They're trying to con you."
"Scamdemic" is the first episode of the new Bangkok Post podcast, "Deeper Dive". You can watch the full-length video episode of "Scamdemic" by clicking the arrow above or right here, and the audio version is available wherever you get your podcasts – just search for "Deeper Dive Thailand". Please follow and share the pod!