Around the world, reports of cyber-scam schemes targeting unsuspecting victims online have proliferated rapidly. Southeast Asia has become a center of gravity for those criminal syndicates, often in remote and war-torn corners. But in Cambodia, the scam industry has been flourishing well within the reach of officials.
For much of last year, dozens of nations reported that criminal gangs operating in Cambodia had lured tens of thousands of people into the country with the promise of high-paying jobs and free housing. Instead, they were forced to work for online scam mills while under intense surveillance in nondescript compounds, part of a multibillion dollar industry that has entrapped victims on both sides.
Under pressure, Cambodia announced a crackdown in August 2022. Since then, the authorities have said they have rescued more than 2,000 citizens from other countries, shut down five companies and detained 95 people. But New York Times interviews with law enforcement, rights groups and rescued victims detail how the shadowy industry has nonetheless continued to thrive because of powerful businessmen with close ties to senior officials in the Cambodian government, and a system of patronage that protects the mills from being investigated by the police.