China has joined an action plan alongside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and UNODC to tackle the gangs and chase their illegal gains while protecting the people trafficked into the casinos and scam compounds of Cambodia Myanmar and the Philippines.
The Chinese nationals, some known fugitives, dominate the gangs that use online gambling, romance, cryptocurrency, and foreign-exchange scams to target their victims, many of whom are in China or are part of the Chinese diaspora.
Cyber scams have harvested untold billions of victims in Asia and beyond over the past two to three years, many operating out of remote compounds beyond the reach of law enforcement staffed by workers who have been trafficked there and forced into crime.
Police say the online scam drove a Thai man to kill his wife and children.
The broad strokes of the plan are to prevent 'organised crime from infiltrating communities' and co-opting the economy and politics of the countries in which they operate, the text of the agreement says, as well as chasing down the proceeds of crime and safeguarding vulnerable persons and victims from [further] harm.
Regional security officials say the money stolen by the scammers is diverted through casinos and converted into hard-to-trace cryptocurrencies. It then finds its way into properties and luxury goods from Bangkok to, the latter of which seized more than US$1 billion in assets linked to Chinese criminals' money laundering from online gaming and scam rooms last month.
The domestic contexts, although necessary and welcome, will not have a significant impact, said Rebecca Miller, UNODC regional adviser on human trafficking and migrant smugglers.
Security experts say the scale of the money the gangs are minting makes it more urgent because it opens the door to politicians and police in those areas of Asean where the rule of law is weakest such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
So much money is being made that the UNODC estimates the scam gangs in one Southeast Asian nation rake in between US$7.5 and $12.5 billion per year - reaching half the value of that country's gross domestic product.
However, the UNODC said that such groups are also often remarkably open, in some cases presenting themselves as legitimate business entities or even philanthropists.
inside the lawless Chinese-run scam hubs of Myanmar.
However, the UNOC forecasts that Southeast Asia's scam centres will soon adapt and start to rely more on highly skilled tech workers rather than vast numbers of forced labourers trafficked into crime.
The UNODC said that artificial intelligence and translation tools that allow scammers to hit multiple different nationalities in seconds may lessen the need for victims with diverse language skills, replacing this with a need for IT skills and/or experience using various social media platforms and communication channels.
In Asia's business hubs, executives are reporting a surge of cybersecurity breaches by bots stealing sensitive company data and recordings of senior staff members' voice, which are then weaponised against employees and their clients for payment.