360 Indian citizens working as ‘cyber slaves’ in Cambodia return home | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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360 Indian citizens working as ‘cyber slaves’ in Cambodia return home

May 23, 2024 08:41 AM IST

For people who want to come back, the kingpins of such organised crime demand that the victims “buy back their independence”

At least 360 Indian citizens who were scammed into working as “cyber slaves” in Cambodia, have been successfully brought back to India in the last four-five months, CEO of Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C) Rajesh Kumar said on Wednesday, adding that another 60 Indians who are stuck in the Southeast Asian nation will arrive in the coming weeks.

Representational image.
Representational image.

Amid rise in cybercrime incidents targeting India that originate in Southeast Asia, particularly from Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, the Union government on May 16 constituted a high level inter-ministerial committee under the chairpersonship of the special secretary (Internal Security), ministry of home affairs (MHA). The committee, comprising officials from the ministries of external affairs, finance, and electronics and information technology, department of telecommunications, CBI, NIA, CBIC, and department of post, has met twice thus far, Kumar said.

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The committee has been created to take a “very focused and concerted action on ending this menace which is going on from Southeast Asia”, Kumar added.

These victims were lured to Cambodia through attractive job offers but on reaching, their passports were taken away and they were forced to engage in scamming people in India using online means of communication such as Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook, Google Ads, and other platforms and fake apps, Kumar said.

‘Cyber slaves’ are foreign nationals who are tricked into relocating to another country for “better job opportunities” but are instead forced to work as online scammers in locked compounds. Cambodia has emerged as a hot bed of this kind of exploitation. Many Indians reach Cambodia through Thailand, Kumar said. Many are victims of human trafficking but some go knowingly as well, Kumar said.

For people who want to come back, the kingpins of such organised crime demand that the victims “buy back their independence”, Kumar said. “The victims themselves reached out to the Indian embassy in Cambodia and that embassy alone has been able to bring back 360 people,” he added.

In addition, 150 of such victims, mostly from Andhra Pradesh, protested at a suspected scam compound (called Jinbei 4) in the Sihanouk City of Cambodia on May 20 night. Sixty of them will be repatriated to India in “coming weeks”, Kumar said. The other 90 did not want to come back; they were protesting to get their passports back, he added.

“The Indian government is in touch with Cambodian authorities. These 60 people whom I mentioned will be soon back in this country [India],” Kumar said.

On May 21, the Indian embassy in Phnom Penh released an advisory warning Indian nationals of advertisements for fake jobs in the country through which victims are “coerced to undertake online financial scams and other illegal activities”.

Kumar also said that Section 111 of the new Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, which will replace the Indian Penal Code, includes continuing cyber crimes within the ambit of organised crime, and will be useful in persecuting people involved in such large scale scams.

39.1% of all cyber crimes reported on portal originate in Southeast Asia

Kumar said that 7,40,957 complaints, at an average of 7,000 daily, have been registered on the National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal between January and April 2024. 85% of these are related to online financial frauds and about 46% of these (about 39.1% of the total) originate in Southeast Asia.

Four categories of scams originating from Southeast Asia, and Cambodia in particular, are the I4C focus — investment scams (62,687 complaints between January and April 2024 involving 222.58 crore); trading scams (20,043 complaints involving 1,420.48 crore); digital arrest (4,599 complaints involving 120.3 crore); and romance and dating scams (1,725 complaints involving 13.23 crore).

In 2024, the common modus operandi of crimes emanating from scam centres in Southeast Asia have been fake trading apps, investment apps and websites, fake loan apps, fake dating apps, and fake gaming apps that can involve algorithmic manipulation.

Tackling the scam of ‘digital arrests’

To deal with ‘digital arrests’, the MHA had issued an alert on May 14, and I4C, in collaboration with Microsoft, had got more than 1,000 Skype IDs blocked. In this scam, the perpetrators call the victim and pretend if a parcel, intended for the victim, has been intercepted for containing illegal goods or drugs. They may also pretend that a person close to the victim is involved in a crime and thus the victim is being places under ‘digital arrest’ and must remain visually available over Skype or another video conferencing platform ill their demands are met. Such crimes rely on social engineering for which the criminals depend both on breached personal data as well as the wealth of personal data and details of relationships that people make publicly available on social media platforms.

“Actually, we are careless about posting things on social media. Our suggestion would be that do not reveal of lot on social media. Even if you want to reveal, put controls on who can view your position ,your posts, or your connections. Do not display your phone numbers. Do not display your relationships,” Kumar said.

The criminals dress up as law enforcement officials and use official agency logos in their display pictures to make the ruse more believable. The I4C is working with Microsoft to evolve a system using machine learning and artificial intelligence to track Skype IDs that misuse official logos, Kumar said.

Kumar clarified that thus far, in all the cases involving digital arrest that they have seen, the perpetrators have not yet used AI-generated voices or faces to scam victims. “We have not yet seen that [use of AI]. There are actual human beings sitting in front of cameras. AI should be used by us... We are giving Skype data to train their model so that they can identify when someone is misusing logos of Indian government to commit crimes,” Kumar said.

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