2023 Excellence in Technology Reporting, Small/Medium Newsroom finalist

Human Trafficking’s Newest Abuse: Forcing Victims Into Cyberscamming

About the Project

What if the person who tries to scam you online is themself a victim, forced to perpetrate the crime on pain of a shock from an electric stun gun? That’s the brutal equation at the center of “Human Trafficking’s Newest Abuse: Forcing Victims Into Cyberscamming,” by Cezary Podkul and Cindy Liu. The story opens by showing human trafficking victims being bought and sold in internet chat forums by crime syndicates, many of them operating in Cambodia. (One example: “‘Selling a Chinese man in Sihanoukville just smuggled from China. 22 years old with ID card, typing very slow.” That ad listed a price of $10,000.) In a gripping dual narrative that traces the story of a young Chinese man tricked into a criminal operation and then compelled to fleece people on multiple continents, along with a Chinese-American man who ultimately loses his life savings even as he contends with the death of his father, the reporters bring to light the mechanics, the scale, the geopolitics, the corporate complicity — but most of all, the suffering — involved in this global enterprise. Podkul followed up with a service story that detailed the scripts and tactics scam syndicates use to defraud people and updated readers on the impact of ProPublica’s reporting.

Huge tech and social media companies play a key supporting role in these frauds. Crime syndicates lure workers to scam compounds via fake job ads on Facebook. The syndicates then buy and sell the involuntary workers via online slave forums on Telegram or force them to find marks using social networking sites, from LinkedIn and Instagram to Tinder and OkCupid. The forced scammers often use WhatsApp to communicate with targets. And trading apps distributed by Apple and Google, such as MetaTrader, are used to confer a patina of legitimacy on phony brokerages that channel the savings of victims into cryptocurrency wallets controlled by scammers.

The dual nature of the suffering at the heart of this story — scam victims in the U.S., human trafficking victims in Southeast Asia forced to defraud them — called for insightful and compassionate storytelling. To construct this dual narrative, Podkul interviewed dozens of people who had been fleeced along with people who had been trafficked to find the pairing of characters in Southeast Asia and the U.S. whose stories illuminated the key issues and fit together in a compelling way. The reporting led to a young Chinese man, Fan, who was tricked into a forced-labor operation in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, then compelled to use false identities to defraud people he approached online; and an American victim in California, Yuen, who lost $1 million to such a scam. The stories accomplished the rare feat of connecting human suffering in far-away lands to readers in the U.S. and elsewhere, giving internet users around the world a reason to care about this new form of tech-enabled cyber-slavery in Southeast Asia.