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The growing cost of human trafficking and online scam farms in Cambodia and Southeast Asia
Digital transformation is rapidly and radically changing how governments, companies and citizens interact. To a large extent, it is improving the effectiveness and efficiency of public services, digital commerce, and quality of life. However, digitalization has a dark side, including the expansion of cybercrime and digital harms in lower- and middle-income settings. A particularly insidious example of the negative side of a digitally connected world is click farms, many of which are thriving in Southeast Asia.
Very generally, click farms are coordinated human and machine-operated activities that manipulate online engagement for a specific purpose. SecDev has identified at least three categories of click farms: (1) marketing farms that generate artificial clicks, views, or likes to boost the visibility and reputation enhancement; (2) troll farms that amplify defamatory content for the purpose of discreditation; and (3) scam farms that use social engineering methods to target unsuspecting victims.
Click farms are coordinated human and machine-operated activities that manipulate online engagement for a specific purpose
All three types of click farms are spreading across Southeast Asia with operations spanning the world. While countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand are known for marketing farms, Cambodia may well be “ground zero” for pig butchering scam farms in particular. Part of the reason for this comes down to Cambodia’s incipient but rapidly growing technology sector, poorly enforced digital and labor regulations, the involvement of transnational criminal groups (including from China), and in many cases, the political complicity of public officials in their operation.
In Cambodia, criminal networks use scam farms to lure internet users to sham sites and fraudulent schemes promising fake jobs, gambling, fraudulent real estate, bogus coin offerings, and even romance. The abundance of low-wage labor in Cambodia means that scam farms offer their services at affordable rates, often amplified by online platforms. Some scam farm operators are also expanding their reach and reducing costs by trapping trafficked people, especially women, in slave-like conditions that include detention and torture. As many as 100,000 people are believed to be held captive by cyber-criminals in Cambodia alone, though reports from survivors suggest the numbers could be higher still.
Other factors contributing to scam farms are Cambodia's burgeoning technology sector and weak legislation and oversight. Expanding internet connectivity and smartphone adoption means that there is a large pool of potential click farm operators in the country. At the same time, the absence of robust regulations and enforcement measures in Cambodia is facilitating the expansion of illegal scam farms and the associated forced recruitment of people lured by fraudulent job offerings from across Asia including China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
Cambodia’s law enforcement agencies have struggled to tackle the issue - indeed, some security services personnel are believed to be profiting from online scam operations. The uneven presence and enforcement of laws and limited oversight means that scam farms are operating with virtual impunity, targeting poor and vulnerable people and attracting both local and international clients. The growth of these illegal scam farms is not only exacerbating criminal economies, it is also undermining trust in a free and open internet.
The spread of scam farms around the world has implications for cybersecurity not just in Cambodia and ASEAN region but also around the world. Fraudulent advertising or “adware” enabled by click farms incurred costs of USD 81 billion in 2022 and could rise to USD 100 billion in 2023. The economic impacts of scam and troll factories are still not fully understood. Even so, scamming operations undermine trust in the internet and have downstream effects on e-services and e-commerce. There is also growing awareness of the impacts of state-sponsored trolling operations on electoral processes. Meanwhile, human trafficking and slave-like labor conditions in conjunction with online scam operations frequently coincide, including in Cambodia. The increasing use of generative artificial intelligence could accelerate these challenges further still.
The threat of scam and troll farms, to Cambodians and others, is likely to worsen.
While evidence of its scope and scale is limited, the threat of scam and troll farms, to Cambodians and others, is likely to worsen. The discretion and anonymity afforded by the internet makes it challenging to trace the origins of these click farm operations and hold backers accountable. Cambodian scam farms are also connected not just to domestic political and economic actors, but also to larger international networks including Chinese criminal syndicates engaging in fraudulent online activities at a global scale. The influx of illegal funds is having knock-on effects on a wide range of criminal activities.
A key impediment to eradicating scam farms is the prolific corruption that enables them in the first place. The IOM, for example, has struggled even to support people trafficked to work for scam farms because they are required to inform authorities before undertaking investigations. Meanwhile, NGOs such as CENTRAL and ADHOC are also struggling to support survivors because they are under intense surveillance by the national authorities.
The Cambodian authorities, for their part, have publicly denied the existence of scam farms altogether. They have also downplayed the challenge of human trafficking enabled by cyber scams, suggesting that foreigners involved with click farms are in fact working voluntarily, and complaints are nothing more than normal labor disputes. Yet reporters consulted by SecDev have observed that some Cambodian scam farms are protected by 3- and 4-star generals and overseen by Chinese gangs. The legislation on regulating click farms in Cambodia and in the ASEAN region more generally is non-existent.
Owing to political obstruction and weak legal constraints, there are currently no organized efforts to crack down on troll and scam farms in Cambodia. At the regional level, ASEAN has started to cautiously draw attention to the issue. Notwithstanding the evolution of cybersecurity legislation and institutions, there is still limited regional action on click farms. With credible evidence and local engagement, ASEAN could be encouraged to expand pressure on member states such as Cambodia to address scam farms and related harms such as trafficked people and forced labor.
Drawing attention to emerging forms of cyber-crime and associated illicit activities could increase transparency, expand accountability and disrupt income streams sustaining click farms and the corrupt officials who enable them. Expanding local public awareness of scam farms and supporting community organizations to share data-driven insight on their wider criminal impacts in Southeast Asia, for example, is an essential step toward building better detection, deterrence and resilience to cyber-crime around the world.
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