Online romance scams hiding torture and modern slavery

Online romance scams hiding torture and modern slavery

  • Published on
    April 21, 2024
  • News Source Image
  • Category:
    Debt Bondage, Forced Labor, Human Trafficking
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Warning: This story contains details of violence, including sexual violence, which may be disturbing. Names have been changed to protect identity.

Online romance scams are commonplace for many living in today’s world, but behind these scams hides an also increasingly common form of exploitation and modern slavery. Migrants from Southeast Asia, tempted by the promise of a job with a living wage, are being duped into debt and modern slavery in increasing numbers. Sold by recruiters to scam compounds deep in the jungle, the BBC reported on migrants forced to run these romance scams under threat of violence, with ransom payments often their only hope of escape.

Dreams of a better life turned into a nightmare filled with torture

Sri Lanka has been hit hard by an ongoing economic crisis. So, when Ravi, a newly wed computer specialist, heard from a local recruiter about a job doing data entry in Bangkok with a monthly salary he could only dream of he jumped at the chance. Like many others, Ravi took out a loan to pay the recruiter’s fee, but on landing in Thailand, he was handed over to gunmen who took him across the border into Myanmar. From there they traveled deep into the jungle to a compound with high walls ringed by barbed wire and protected 24hrs a day by armed guards. Ravi found himself trapped with about 40 young men and women, including other Sri Lankans, as well as people from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and various African countries. They were told they had to help trick lonely, rich men out of thousands of dollars in so-called romance scams or they would be tortured.

Ravi said:

“They stripped off my clothes, made me sit on a chair and gave my leg electric shocks. I thought it was the end of my life.”

For 16 days Ravi was kept in a cell, given no food and only water mixed with cigarette butts and ash to drink, refusing to do the work despite the torture. But when they gang raped two girls in front of him, he realized the Chinese speaking gangsters would not think twice about killing him if he didn’t cooperate. Ravi said he and the others were forced to work up to 22 hours a day, only getting one day off each month. They were forced to build romantic relationships with wealthy men, particularly in Western countries, using stolen phone numbers, social media and other messaging platforms. The end goal was to convince them to invest large amounts of money in fake online trading platforms, once they “invested” their fake lovers melted away.

Pay your way out or get sold down the line

A 2023 UN report found more than 120,000 people are estimated to have been ensnared as a “cyber slave” in Myanmar scan centers, most of them men from Asia, like Ravi. Fed by a steady stream of desperate migrants, scam centers have been popping up across Southeast Asia, but they are especially prevalent in Myanmar.

Exact numbers are not known due to the illicit nature of the crime, but it is estimated cyber slavery is making billions of dollars for Chinese crime syndicates and for the various armed groups operating in border towns around the area.

One of the only ways to get away from the gangs is to pay an exorbitant ransom, otherwise it is an endless cycle of scamming and torture. That is how Neel, who was also trafficked to Myanmar along with five other Indian men and two Filipino women, escaped. Promised a call center job in Bangkok by his mother’s childhood friend, on arrival he realized things were not as promised.

Neel said:

“There were several companies, all of them were scammers, (and) we were sold to those companies. When we reached that place (the compound), I lost hope. If my mother hadn’t given them the ransom money, I would have been tortured like others.”

Neel refused to scam when he arrived as had Ravi, but he was lucky as his family was able to pay the more than $7,000 USD to gain his release. However, before he left, he witnessed brutal punishments inflicted on those who didn’t meet the targets set or couldn’t afford to pay the ransom as Neel’s family had. During his first six months as a cyber slave, Ravi was tortured and sold to various gangs as he refused to scam. He survived and eventually escaped due to his expertise in computer software. Offered a “last chance” by the head gangster, Ravi used his skills for four months to manage Facebook accounts set up using a VPN, artificial intelligence apps, and 3D video cameras to stave off torture, by then half his body was paralyzed due to torture.

Ravi then begged to be allowed to go to Sri Lanka to visit his ill mother. Only after paying a ransom of $2,000 USD as well as $650 for transport across the river into Thailand did the gang leader agree. But Ravi’s homecoming was bittersweet as he was now more than $6,000 USD in debt, his parents having borrowed against their home to get his ransom money.

Today Ravi barely sees his new bride or his family saying bitterly “I work day and night in a garage to pay off this debt. We have pawned both of our wedding rings to pay the interest.” Even still, Ravi knows he is one of the lucky ones as many more are still trapped in modern slavery, forced to use romance or some other ruse to scam money from unsuspecting people all over the world.


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1 month ago

We all hate those scam emails and there are even message boards that revel in getting a little “payback” on these scammers. After reading this article, I feel terrible for the people forced into this. Is there anyway to help a “scammer” or is that totally naive on my part?

1 month ago

How cruel! May our shining a light on this and adding our voices rid this injustice.

Carol Yost
Carol Yost
1 month ago

Your work is terrific! How can we get those scammers arrested?

1 month ago

*any Option to support Ravi…

1 month ago

Is there and Option to Support Ravioli and his Family directly?

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