Philippine police free more than a thousand modern slaves caught up in online scams
by Stefano Vecchia

Investigations focus on a racket that affects people across Southeast Asia. Lured to the Philippines for a regular job, the victims are held against their will and forced into criminal activities like rigged sales, erotic chats, and cryptocurrency scams. A Philippine senator raised the issue of “scam hubs" urging government action.

Manila (AsiaNews) – Online scams are a scourge that affects all of Asia.

Philippine police recently dismantled a racket involving a thousand foreigners, mostly from Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, but also from China, Myanmar, Nepal, and Taiwan.

Lured to the Philippines by job offers, the victims are held against their will and forced to engage in criminal activities ranging from rigged sales to chats for sexual blackmail as well as lucrative business proposals in cryptocurrencies.

According to local authorities, 1,090 people were rescued during an operation at a residential complex in Mabalacat, a city in Pampanga province, north of the capital Manila.

Most of those arrested are from China, and were indicted on human trafficking charges.

Police said that investigations continue into possible ramifications and connections related to this type of modern slavery. The victims, who had their passports taken, were forced to work up to 18 hours a day to contact unsuspecting customers in Europe, the United States, and Canada.

Their job consisted of proposing lucrative investments in cryptocurrencies or buying houses or cars to individuals who were lured into fake online romantic relationships.

Any failure to comply with rules was punished with heavy deductions from remuneration; workers were required to remain within the work area even after they completed their shifts and had to sleep in special dormitories.

Philippines police were tipped off by Indonesian officials, who received desperate messages for help from Indonesians trapped inside.

The problem is not new, and involves many organisations using the Internet to fool victims, both those lured with the promise of a well-paid job and their would-be customers.

For some time, human rights organisations have been reporting on human trafficking and online scams. Now some political leaders appear to be waking up to the problem.

Last month, Philippine Senator Risa Hontiveros raised the issue of “scam hubs” before the Philippine Senate’s Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality, stressing that foreign governments have been urging the Philippines to act decisively.

Cambodia and Myanmar also host such hubs with criminal groups enjoying high-level patronage or links with powerful people who have so far prevented effective action against this widespread and well-known scourge.