New Zealand should be bracing for a wave of brazen online scammers operating out of shady Southeast Asian casinos awash with mega global meth-trade money, a senior United Nations drug expert has warned.
Cyber fraud allegedly orchestrated by ruthless organised crime syndicates, who are increasingly trapping human slaves, are ramping up sophisticated cons.
The scam operations target innocent online gamblers and attempt to trick them into sham investments, including cryptocurrency, stocks, and gold.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has been investigating the rising organised crime trend, which they say originates out of dodgy casinos in the Mekong region, including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, as well as the Philippines.
Last week, UNODC’s regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Jeremy Douglas, was in Wellington speaking to New Zealand Police and other law enforcement officials to warn of the perils, advising NZ Police to be ready to deal with the massive fallout “like it was ready for the meth wave back in 2014, when it hit the country really hard”.
“It’s a very fast-moving, accelerating criminal landscape that is something that New Zealand should be paying attention to,” Douglas told the Herald on Sunday.
“And if there haven’t been victims already, expect there to be victims, sadly. Because you’ve got a lot of people here with money, relative to a lot of other countries. So, it will be a target, just like it was for meth and other crime by transnational crime groups.”
Although New Zealand “might seem a long way away”, geographical distance doesn’t protect anyone, he said.
“It didn’t protect [New Zealand] from the meth trade, and it certainly won’t protect you from the characters behind this. This is the kind of crime that transcends borders. This is a global phenomenon,” Douglas said.
“It’s highly likely to be occurring [in New Zealand],” he added.
Some of the Mekong Delta casinos have been set up directly from drug money, with gangs and crime bosses using the glitzy operations as fronts to launder their illicit cash.
The casinos had been highly dependent on gambling tourists rocking up and spending large.
The prized targets are VIPs on junkets – red-carpet treatment for high-rollers – who came in, many from mainland China.
UNODC is understood to have found clear links to major underworld figures, including Sam Gor, the international crime syndicate known as ‘The Company’, the Chinese triads, and key gang bosses like Wan “Broken Tooth” Kuok Koi and Chinese fugitive gambling tycoon Xu Aimin.
But Covid turned that tap off almost immediately around March 2020, with the shutters going up on international borders.
It pushed a lot of their business into online gaming, where some of them already had a presence, but it quickly became their focus as gamblers were trapped at home.
“In essence, the customers couldn’t come to them, so they went to the customers,” Douglas said.
But while that gaming business might’ve started out legitimate, many of the Southeast Asian casinos quickly started adding scams.
Victims are targeted and duped into fake cryptocurrency or stocks, transferring their money into what they believe are legitimate companies which turn out to be a front.
Others put money into gambling sites where they can never retrieve any funds.
“That business has really exploded,” he said.
“The reason casinos got into it is that they use the same technology for online gaming. They have the IT platforms and staff that speak Chinese.”
But as the pandemic stretched on, the casinos became even more emboldened, the UNODC intel says, and have branched out to target English speakers and the Chinese diaspora across the world.
The Southeast Asian casinos are connected to New Zealand in two ways – the meth being made in the Golden Triangle and shipped here for Kiwi gangs to sell on the street, with the profits being laundered through the casinos; and the scams targeting New Zealanders.
New Zealand Police hasn’t yet seen any online scams “with a nexus attributable to the Mekong Delta area”, but its cybercrime unit is aware of organised crime groups in the region using forced labour, making people work online and execute cold-call scams.
“Online scams have evolved and become more sophisticated in recent years,” a police spokesman said.
“Scammers will keep developing new variations of scams as older ones become known.
“Some scams are socially engineered to target particular demographics. However, the prevention messaging remains the same – when online, New Zealand Police’s advice is to not engage with messages or links that are unfamiliar, never share personal or financial information with someone unknown, and, if you receive something suspicious, do not click on it, and please report it. And if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Switzerland-based independent organisation the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime estimates that tens of thousands of people, primarily from the Mekong region, but also India and Ukraine, are being held against their will to work on the sophisticated cyber scams.
The group’s research has found that efforts to shut down online scam centres and the rescue of trafficked workers are “severely hindered by the collusion of local authorities”.
Source : Otago Daily Times