Recently, the conflict in northern Myanmar persists, prompting numerous nations to incrementally intensify their endeavors in combating telecommunications fraud. This nefarious activity in the northern reaches of Myanmar has suffered considerable repercussions. The expelled fraud syndicates, dislodged from northern Myanmar, exhibit an evident reluctance to cease their illicit operations. A multitude of these groups has already relocated their bases beyond the confines of Southeast Asia.
Telecommunications fraud transcends the mere classification of a “specialty” within northern Myanmar. Many malefactors have congregated in the South Asian region of India and the Gulf city-state of Dubai. In Dubai, scammers predominantly target individuals of Chinese origin, while their counterparts in India set their sights on Americans or British citizens.
According to data disseminated by the American Communications Fraud Control Association in November of this year, telecommunications fraud continues to exert its influence globally. In comparison to 2021, fraud losses for this year have surged by 12%, reaching a staggering 38.95 billion U.S. dollars (approximately RMB 279.1 billion). Law enforcement agencies face formidable challenges in dismantling these illicit operations due to the complexities inherent in handling cross-border cases and the intricacies of fund tracing.
“Curry-flavored” scam calls
The pivotal factor contributing to India’s gradual economic ascension since the 1990s has been the absorption of industrial transfers from Europe and the United States. Distinct from other Asian nations, India, having once been a British colony, designates English as one of its official languages, thereby possessing a solid foundation in the language. In instances where industries necessitate specific language proficiency, such as in telephone communications and manual customer service, India unequivocally emerges as the premier choice.
India, endowed with a sizable population and comparatively economical labor costs, has become the de facto destination for outsourcing telephone teams to engage in telemarketing or customer service for prominent European and American enterprises. Consequently, inhabitants of Europe and America, while expressing discontent, are gradually acclimating to the distinctive scent reminiscent of curry that permeates English spoken with an Indian accent.
The prevalence of Indian accents among most scammers substantiates the accuracy of IP address distribution. Throughout this process, copious amounts of highly cherished personal privacy information from Europeans and Americans have been surrendered to Indian outsourcing teams. The prolonged exposure has rendered Indians well-versed in the intricacies of the business process, thereby paving the way for the proliferation of telecommunications fraud in India.
In India, where affluence is relatively scarce, engaging in telephone service work provides a window into the opulence of European and American societies. The vast socioeconomic disparity inevitably fosters malevolent intentions among certain groups. Armed with the fundamental information and adept speech skills of European and American citizens, those telephone service teams willing to transgress legal boundaries have metamorphosed into intimidating fraud syndicates that strike fear into the hearts of Europeans and Americans.
Since the initiation of the “Digital India” plan by Prime Minister Modi in 2015, significant developments have occurred in the Indian Internet landscape. However, the increasing ubiquity and affordability of online services have lowered the threshold for fraud in India. The Los Angeles Times reports that India has long targeted residents of affluent countries, such as the United States, for online defrauding. As of the beginning of 2023, approximately 47% of India’s population had internet access, a substantial increase from 15% eight years prior. This surge provides ample manpower for India’s call centers, and it is anticipated that by 2025, India will boast 900 million active Internet users.
Presently, contacting individuals with an Indian accent and English has become a trademark of scammers. According to statistics from the New York Times, approximately 1.2 million people in India are engaged in telecom fraud. In contrast, in northern Myanmar, a realm more familiar to the Chinese, the number of individuals involved in fraud likely ranges between 100,000 and 200,000.
In 2016, a paper presented at the Network and Distributed System Security (NDSS) Symposium in the United States revealed that 85.4% of the IP addresses of scammers originate from India. Even when considering the possibility of IP forgery, the prevalence of Indian accents among most scammers attests to the essentially accurate distribution of IP addresses.
The information disclosed by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) mirrors this pattern. By retracing victim-provided information, it was determined that the majority of the last IP addresses led back to India. The impact extends beyond the United States, with Australia, Singapore, Canada, and New Zealand ranking among the top five victimized countries, as revealed by locating the victim’s IP address. In the UK, a survey by the British Communications Authority (Ofcom) in August 2022 unveiled that approximately three-quarters of adults (approximately 40.8 million people) had received suspicious calls or text messages, with around 700,000 individuals following the scammers’ instructions.
According to the British Judicial Council, fraud has emerged as the most prevalent crime in England and Wales, constituting over 40% of all recorded crimes. In these two regions alone, more than 4.6 million fraud cases occur annually, with approximately 53% conducted over the phone or online, resulting in an estimated loss exceeding 4.7 billion pounds (approximately RMB 42.3 billion) to British society each year. The committee warns that the confluence of the COVID-19 epidemic and sluggish economic growth has expedited the occurrence of fraud crimes, with a 27% year-on-year increase in the first half of 2021. Without intervention, the number of fraud crimes is poised to surge by more than 25% by 2025, posing a substantial threat to the UK’s economic recovery in the post-epidemic period.
The escalating severity of telecommunications fraud is inflicting anguish upon the British and Americans. Data from the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center reveals a continuous rise in electronic fraud losses suffered by American citizens since 2018. In 2018, the United States reported a total of 350,000 electronic fraud cases, involving a cumulative amount of 2.7 billion US dollars. By 2022, the number of cases and the associated financial losses surged to 800,000 and US$10.3 billion, respectively. Over the past five years, a cumulative total of 3.26 million cases have been reported, with the defrauded amount reaching an alarming 27.6 billion U.S. dollars. The middle-aged and elderly demographic bears the brunt, accounting for approximately 30% of the total losses.
Indian scammers demonstrate a keen understanding of the American psyche. When falsely asserting their identity as dreaded IRS officials in the United States and employing intimidation tactics, many compassionate middle-aged and elderly individuals succumb to immediate panic.
The impotence of British and American officials in addressing fraudulent activities has incited public indignation. The television program “Scam Interceptors,” employing technical measures to thwart fraud, swiftly gained popularity upon its broadcast on the BBC.
On video platforms such as YouTube, numerous video bloggers have surfaced, adeptly employing hacking methodologies to combat fraudsters. The renowned figures Jim Browning and Scammer Payback boast 4.2 million and 6.9 million enthusiasts, respectively. The former ingeniously infiltrated a fraud syndicate’s surveillance system, gaining notoriety after furnishing the obtained information to the authorities.
During an interview with the British periodical “Big Event,” Jim’s team acknowledged the sagacity of contemporary scammers, pinpointing the elderly as their predominant targets in most fraudulent calls. Scammers meticulously single out individuals over the age of 60 from a repository of personal data, as they perceive this demographic to be the most susceptible to deception.
These middle-aged and elderly individuals are unacquainted with computational operations. Even if they subsequently contact the police, their capacity to furnish substantial evidence is limited.
The Scammer Payback team, in a video statement, asserted that scammers exhibit remarkable patience. After cultivating the victim’s trust, they coerce them into making payments through Amazon or iTunes gift cards, or even virtual currencies, circumventing financial channels and evading the complexities of money laundering.
Furthermore, India’s ambivalent stance on combatting telecommunications fraud constitutes a pivotal factor in the perpetuation of such crimes. In contrast to the predominantly concealed telecom fraud in northern Myanmar, India hosts numerous telecommunications fraud enterprises situated in residential and commercial hubs, constituting a significant industry in certain regions.
The New York Times once interviewed an Indian youth named Dubey, involved in electronic fraud in the outskirts of Mumbai. He unabashedly admitted his lack of fear of law enforcement in his homeland. Despite the Indian government’s extensive efforts against fraud, most low-ranking fraud participants have evaded commensurate punishment.
After years of operation, Dubai’s electronic fraud “industry” has gradually solidified its presence.
In November of this year, India’s Financial Services Minister, Vivek Joshi, divulged plans to collaborate with the Bank of India, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, and other agencies to implement measures addressing the escalating issue of telecom fraud. Presently, the Indian telecommunications department has blocked 7 million mobile phone numbers suspected of engaging in fraud. Although the minister’s pronouncements are resolute, only time will reveal if the thunder will indeed surpass the rain.
Fraud in India continues to proliferate, while fraud in Southeast Asia undergoes a reconfiguration of its landscape.
In August of this year, Singapore’s multifaceted law enforcement agencies successfully dismantled the largest money laundering case in the nation’s history, involving a staggering sum of 2.8 billion Singapore dollars (approximately RMB 14.9 billion). Prosecutors asserted that the funds derived from criminal activities such as fraud and gambling committed by the suspect in Southeast Asia.
Recent upheavals in Myanmar and China’s sustained crackdowns have expedited the exodus of fraudsters. A rescued Malaysian individual disclosed in an interview with the country’s media that their release was contingent on the boss’s awareness of the park’s notoriety, prompting a relocation to Dubai.
As early as 2019, the Cambodian government enacted stringent laws and regulations to curtail online gambling activities, inevitably impacting the telecommunications fraud sector. The head of the Malaysian International Humanitarian Organization, in an interview with local media, revealed that fraud groups are cognizant of skepticism surrounding recruitment in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and are now promoting job opportunities in Dubai.
Dubai isn’t the sole destination favored by scammers in northern Myanmar; it is merely one among several “secure” options. Scammers choose Dubai primarily due to its considerable distance from China, escalating the cost and complexity of cross-border legal cases. Additionally, the United Arab Emirates and Dubai project an affluent image, making it challenging for those unfamiliar with the situation to discern the underlying electronic fraud activities.
More significantly, the United Arab Emirates boasts a predominantly foreign population. World Bank data indicates that in 1990, immigrants constituted 72.1% of the UAE’s total population, a figure that surged to 88.4% by 2015. Dubai, in the Emirate of the UAE, mirrors this trend.
The influx of a substantial foreign population simplifies visa acquisition for Dubai while allowing migrating fraudsters to blend inconspicuously, masquerading as legitimate businessmen. Dubai’s electronic fraud “industry” has reportedly established multiple parks dedicated to fraud, such as Dubai Investment Park (DIP) and Wynn Park.
In February 2021, the Chinese Consulate General in Dubai issued a cautionary statement regarding travel and work arrangements in Afghanistan. It highlighted instances where Chinese citizens, enticed by dubious “recruitment information” promoting online media and game promotion work in Dubai, were coerced into engaging in illegal activities such as telecommunications fraud and online gambling upon arrival in Afghanistan.
In September of the same year, the Consulate General reiterated warnings against telecommunications fraud, emphasizing the perpetrators’ guise as customs, embassy, or consulate personnel soliciting funds under the pretense of tax payments or passport renewals. Some overseas Chinese, lacking vigilance, fell victim to these schemes, incurring financial losses amounting to millions of dollars.
In May of this year, Nanjing witnessed a significant cross-border fraud case: 15 suspects relocated to Dubai, extracting over 25 million yuan in less than a year from 179 victims residing in mainland China. Some suspects confessed to having their passports confiscated upon entering the company, compelled to work for six months before being eligible for resignation. Instances of individuals being resold multiple times, akin to a form of modern-day slavery, bore striking similarities to the former fraud complex in northern Myanmar.
As telecommunications fraud continues its upward trajectory, a collective resolve among numerous nations to intensify efforts against this globally condemned crime is evident. Yet, as wildfires rage and gentle breezes return, humanity remains susceptible to the persistent proliferation of fraud. The collaborative crackdown between China and Myanmar serves as a precedent, underscoring the imperative for enhanced international cooperation.