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After Cambodia crypto scam, Indians demand more jobs at home

Thousands of people, many with tech skills, have been lured by social media advertisements promising well-paid jobs in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, only to find themselves forced to defraud strangers worldwide via the internet.
Last Updated : 16 May 2024, 03:47 IST
Last Updated : 16 May 2024, 03:47 IST

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Golanthara, Odisha: Starved and locked in a room under round-the-clock video surveillance, Dinabandhu Sahu spent sleepless nights wondering if he would ever again see his family back home in India after he was duped into a job scam in Cambodia.

Sahu jumped at the chance to earn $900 a month in Vietnam as a data entry operator with free meals and accommodation last June after working a string of short-lived jobs in similar fields which paid a fraction of the wage he was promised abroad.

"Even though my family members insisted I shouldn't go, I felt relieved when I got this offer," said Sahu, who hoped the new job would help him clear debts of 350,000 rupees ($4,190).

"I started imagining a great future," Sahu, 41, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at his home in Golanthara, a village in the eastern state of Odisha.

But after arriving in Vietnam, he and four other Indian recruits were smuggled into neighbouring Cambodia where their passports were taken, and they were put to work on online cryptocurrency scams.

Sahu was one of the 250 Indians recently rescued and repatriated over several months by the government after they were lured into fraudulent employment in Cambodia.

Online job scams targeting desperate jobseekers have been on the rise in India, labour and cybersecurity experts say.

The trend highlights a tough labour market in India, where unemployment and a lack of skilled, permanent jobs - especially in rural areas - are leading concerns in the ongoing general election that ends on June 1.

As voters go to the polls, Sahu urged them to hold authorities to account and demand justice for victims of jobs scams - as well as better employment opportunities at home.

"Whoever comes to power must address this issue and ensure such tragedies don't befall others," he said. "The government must take strict action against the agents who are defrauding jobseekers."

'Quick money dream'

Despite growing at the fastest pace among major peers, India's economy has failed to generate enough jobs for its large and expanding young population.

This creates fertile ground for trafficking rackets that often use social media to recruit and tap into jobseekers' despair, cybersecurity and recruitment experts say.

"Youngsters feel there are better offers abroad. They get so tempted by the sum offered they don't do any kind of cross-checking," said Dhanya Menon, managing director of Avanzo Cyber Security Solutions in India.

"They chase the quick money dream."

Jasmin Chande, co-founder of Mumbai-based recruitment firm Placement Expert, advised jobseekers to thoroughly research the company and check recruiters are legitimate.

Other red flags, he said, were requests for personal financial details, payment for training or equipment, and pressure to make quick decisions with little information.

"Candidates should be cautious of offers that seem too good to be true," he said in emailed comments.

'Daily torture'

Thousands of people, many with tech skills, have been lured by social media advertisements promising well-paid jobs in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, only to find themselves forced to defraud strangers worldwide via the internet.

Organised crime rings that fuelled an "explosion" of human trafficking and cyber scam centres during the Covid-19 pandemic have expanded from Southeast Asia into a global network making up to $3 trillion a year, according to Interpol.

The United Nations said last year that more than 100,000 people had been trafficked into online scam centres in Cambodia.

Sahu was searching for jobs abroad when he was added to a WhatsApp group in which an agent told him about an IT firm vacancy in Vietnam.

He immediately sent him all his documents and paid 150,000 rupees ($1,800) to arrange the job, leaving behind his wife and daughter in July.

Days later, he was taken to Poipet, a city in western Cambodia, where he was forced to create a fake persona to contact thousands of people in the Philippines via social media to gain their trust and encourage them to invest in cryptocurrency.

His daily target was to bring in 100,000 rupees worth of investments.

"It was daily torture. They demanded I bring business and grew angry when I couldn't," said Sahu, wiping away tears as he recalled his time as a captive in a tiny room, given food once a day.

Sahu was rescued last September after his family informed a local politician about his condition.

Status aspiration

Asked to comment on the Cambodia case, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) referred to previous statements. In has issued several warnings, including an April 4 advisory that urged Indians not to "fall into the trap of human traffickers".

The Cambodian Embassy in New Delhi did not respond to requests for comment, and has not said publicly if arrests were made following the rescue of the Indian migrants.

While many commentators blame trafficking scams on India's tough jobs market, better employment opportunities at home are unlikely to be enough to stop them, said labour economist K.R. Shyam Sundar.

"It is a popular belief that more job opportunities will fix this problem but that is not the case because this is all about status aspiration, and the amount of money being offered in a more powerful currency in a foreign country," he said.

Sundar, a professor at the Management Development Institute near New Delhi, urged Indian states to establish an international affairs department to register migrant workers at the village level, and monitor those leaving for jobs abroad.

"We need visible and legal migration to curb abuse," he said, also calling for authorities to name and shame bogus recruitment agencies to raise awareness.

Sahu, who now earns 13,000 rupees as a convenience store supervisor at a local petrol pump, said he was doing what he could to stop others from falling into similar traps - alerting friends over potential scams and helping state cyber police in a probe into how fraudulent recruiters operate.

"Nobody should have to go through the ordeal that I did," he said.

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Published 16 May 2024, 03:47 IST

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