Devyani Khobragade, Indian ambassador to Cambodia
India's ambassador to Cambodia, Devyani Khobragade (center), meets with local authorities in Sihanoukville to discuss the rescue of Indians trapped in a scam compound on May 21, 2024. Credit: Embassy of India in Cambodia / X

Indian police arrest five accused of trafficking people into scam compounds

Indian authorities have arrested five people accused of trafficking unwitting job seekers into Southeast Asian scam compounds, days after the repatriation of dozens of Indian nationals who had been lured into “fraud factories” in Cambodia and Laos.

On May 27, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) said it had searched locations across six states and seized evidence like digital devices and bogus employment letters. 

“NIA investigations have revealed the accused to be involved in an organized trafficking syndicate engaged in luring and trafficking Indian youth to foreign countries on the false promises of legal employment,” the agency said in a press release, adding that the victims were forced to work in “fake call centers” in Laos and Cambodia. 

“They were coerced into undertaking illegal activities online, such as credit card fraud, investments in Crypto currency using fake applications, honey trapping, etc,” the NIA said.

Southeast Asia’s cyber fraud industry, which is run primarily by Chinese organized crime groups with local connections on the ground, is fueled by a forced labor pool of people who are lured by promising job opportunities into large scamming compounds. 

They are often paid little or nothing and are forced under physical threat to carry out cyber fraud like pig butchering scams — where a scammer gains the trust of a victim through messaging apps before tricking them into phony investments. Given their English language skills, strong technological skills and for many the lack of opportunities at home, Indians are an attractive target for scam groups. 

According to Indian police, the five detainees were allegedly working “at the behest of foreign-based agents belonging to well organised syndicates.”

One of the five people arrested is the bodybuilder and social media influencer Balwant “Bobby” Kataria, who according to a complaint filed by two victims advertised fictitious job opportunities on his YouTube and Instagram channels. 

Rather than going to the United Arab Emirates for work, as promised, the two men said they ended up in a scam center in Laos. 

The trafficking of Indians into scam compounds in Southeast Asia has become such a problem that the Indian Embassy in Cambodia has posted a pop-up warning on its website warning citizens to be wary. 

“It has come to [our] attention that Indian nationals, lured by fake promises of lucrative job opportunities in Cambodia, are falling into the trap of human traffickers,” the embassy says. “Indian nationals intending to visit Cambodia for employment are cautioned to do so only through authorized agents. It is also advised that the background of the prospective employer in Cambodia is checked thoroughly.” 

The embassy recently helped secure the release of dozens of its citizens allegedly trafficked into a compound in the coastal city of Sihanoukville, one of the hubs of the cyber scam industry. 

On May 20, video emerged on X (formerly Twitter) of a large group of Indians reportedly demanding their release from a compound in Sihanoukville called Jinbei 4. The men can be seen shouting on a basketball court within the compound when local police arrive. 

The following day, after the video was shared widely, the Indian Embassy said it had heard from citizens trapped in the compound and that 60 of them had been taken by authorities to Phnom Penh for repatriation to India. In total, they said, 360 Indians have been rescued from scam centers in Cambodia. 

On Sunday, 13 Indians trafficked into compounds in Laos returned to their home country

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James Reddick

James Reddick

has worked as a journalist around the world, including in Lebanon and in Cambodia, where he was Deputy Managing Editor of The Phnom Penh Post. He is also a radio and podcast producer for outlets like Snap Judgment.