‘Gullible’ educated youth tricked into working in foreign shores

Most of these youths aren’t aware of formalities. They end up in foreign lands without work permits, exploited by handlers who force them to work long hours without proper rest and food.
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 23:44 IST
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 23:44 IST
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 23:44 IST
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 23:44 IST

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Chennai/Hyderabad: In 2022, Stephen Wesley, then 28, was full of dreams. He took a flight from Coimbatore to Sharjah en route to Thailand. He was offered a job as a 'data entry operator' with a 'good salary'.

Wesley thought he could provide better for his family and clear his loans. However, his dreams came crashing down soon. He and six others from Tamil Nadu were trafficked to Myanmar from Mae Sot, a city in Thailand, by their handlers. They had landed in Bangkok on ‘visa on arrival'.

Wesley, a graphic designer in Bengaluru before migrating to Coimbatore during the Covid-19 pandemic, was in for a shock. His job was not data entry but hacking. His task was to create fake profiles on social media, target rich people, and make them 'lose' money.

Take Harish Kumar Vanapalli, a welder from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. He was also offered a 'data entry operator' job in Cambodia. Like Wesley, Vanapalli landed in Thailand, welcomed with chaos, and discovered his job was to befriend five people on Facebook daily and dupe them of money.

Wesley and Vanapalli are among thousands of educated Indian youngsters lured with job offers in Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. These places are the origin of many scams targeting Indians.

Most of these youths aren’t aware of formalities. They end up in foreign lands without work permits, exploited by handlers who force them to work long hours without proper rest and food. 

Lucrative salaries, geographical proximity, lack of awareness and low wages in their hometowns push thousands from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana into such job scams. 

Luckily, Wesley and Vanapalli escaped the 'compounds' in Myanmar and Cambodia due to the 'local police'. But their journey from Myanmar and Cambodia to Thailand without valid travel documents was harrowing. Wesley spent 45 days in a Thai jail.  

“We were trained intensely on how to carry out scams. People who lose money to hackers don’t even know they are being duped. Life inside those large compounds was hell. All we saw were gun-wielding personnel speaking Mandarin,” Wesley, rescued from Thailand in October 2022, told DH.

“Those who return are lucky. Thousands still work in those compounds,” Wesley added. Vanapalli paid over Rs 1.5 lakh to an agent to reach Thailand, thinking a data entry job would be better than welding in Visakhapatnam.

“But little did I know I would be forced to scam people,” Vanapalli told DH. He is among 300 Indians rescued by the Indian Embassy in Cambodia, while Wesley is among 83 from Tamil Nadu rescued from Myanmar and Thailand in 2022.

Individuals like Wesley and Vanapalli are forced to target Indians from abroad. The Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C) registered 20,043 complaints on trading scams amounting to Rs 14,204 crore and 62,687 investment scams totalling Rs 2,225 crore in the first four months of 2024.

I4C reported in May a significant rise in cybercrime incidents targeting India, with about 45% originating mainly from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.

“My work hours increased from nine to 13 to 15 hours as I couldn’t meet targets. If you don’t achieve targets, you starve. Those compounds are like concentration camps. Escaping is sheer luck. I feel lucky,” Wesley said.

Telugu youths trafficked to Cambodia complained of receiving only one meal a day from handlers. They occasionally went without food for days due to ‘underperformance’ in cyber fraud.

Scams like FedEx, whose victims include a 70-year-old woman journalist who lost Rs 1.20 crore, originate from these countries. Bengaluru city police reported 335 cybercrime cases linked to the FedEx scam in 2023.

Visakhapatnam Police found that Jinbei Compound, Sihanoukville, Cambodia, is a hub for cybercrime fraud factories. Indians are taken there and 'forced' to hack into bank accounts and personal emails.

“These gullible youths are trained for specialised cybercrimes like FedEx scams, stock market frauds, task game frauds, and various other types of cyber frauds on Indian citizens,” Dr Fakkeerappa Kaginelli, Joint Commissioner of Police, Visakhapatnam, told DH.

Well-placed sources in the Tamil Nadu government told DH that only people with English knowledge and computer skills are being targeted. Their probe so far has revealed that these graduates are employed in the 'heavily-protected' special zones in the three countries.

“It is mostly a one-way traffic. Most youngsters who land these jobs go through illegal agents who are not authorised to take people abroad. Tracking these firms is extremely difficult. Rescuing them is a herculean task,” a source said.

Visakhapatnam Police Commissioner Ravi Shankar Ayyanar said their probe found each youth paid around Rs 1.5 lakh to a local agent for a data entry job before going to Cambodia. “Sometimes they face punishments like confinement to dark rooms and beatings with a baseball bat,” he said, quoting victims.

Dr Bernard D’ Sami, Senior Fellow, Loyola Institute of Social Science Training and Research (LISSTAR), Loyola College, Chennai, told DH that India’s youth bulge serves as an advantage for recruitment agencies. 

According to the Emigration Act 1983, only recognised recruitment agencies can send people abroad for work.  

“It is rural youth from southern states (and from UP, Rajasthan and Bihar) except Kerala who prefer Southeast Asian countries for work due to its geographical proximity and the pay package. They have seen their peers doing well and providing better for their families after going abroad. This pushes them to look for job offers abroad and mostly they fall into the hands of illegal recruiters,” he said. 

Terming the current trend as “forced migration for hard labour", D’ Sami said the government should intervene by cracking down heavily on illegal agents. 

“The government should come up with awareness programmes and increase the number of migration information centres to help youth access information. List of recognised agencies and blacklisted employers in destination countries should be made available widely,” he added. 

He also said tracking down the agents become extremely difficult because there are multiple layers to the way these people migrate. “From their village to their final destination, these youths are handled by at least half a dozen to dozen people. So, they don’t know whom to blame,” he said. 

B Krishnamoorthy, Commissioner, Rehabilitation & Welfare of Non Resident Tamils, told DH that the state government was mulling increasing the number of Pre-Departure Orientation Training (PDOT) centres and creating awareness among the youngsters.

“We have engaged paralegal coordinators and are in the process of engaging law firms to help people who are stranded in many foreign shores. We are also roping in Tamil associations in foreign countries to help us reach people who are stranded or affected. They will also be helpful in guiding the youngsters before they go abroad,” he added.

Published 01 June 2024, 23:44 IST

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