A man who targeted Canadians for cryptocurrency investment scams is speaking out after escaping the Cambodian compound where he was forced to do it.
In an exclusive interview with CBC’s Marketplace, the Malaysian man says he became a victim of human trafficking after he answered a post on a Facebook group advertising a customer service job with a Cambodian casino.
John, whose real name CBC has agreed to withhold to protect his safety, spent four months with others essentially held captive in compounds in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. While there, he was forced to start conversations with strangers online, gain their trust and convince them to make dubious investments.
“If we don’t follow [the rules], we will be beaten or electric-shocked,” he said.
John said it all started when he was laid off from his job at a Cambodian casino during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and forced to move back to Thailand, where he was previously based. After four months without work, he became desperate. He was relieved when he saw an online ad for a casino in a different Cambodian city, and that his new employer would fly him there with all expenses paid.
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Soon after arriving in Sihanoukville, John was locked into a unit on the fourth floor of a compound and had his passport confiscated. While in Cambodia, he was forced to target Canadians and other English-speaking Westerners in cryptocurrency scams designed to steal their life savings.
“We [were] always at the fourth floor to eat, to work, to sleep, to take a shower,” John said, who warned others to be wary of accepting a job that seems to come too easily.
“Once you get into the scam compound, that might be your life — gone.”
Costliest type of fraud in Canada
According to Canada’s Anti-Fraud Centre, fraud and cyber-crime reports totalled $530 million in victim losses in 2022, up 40 per cent from $380 million the previous year. Investment scams, particularly ones involving cryptocurrency, represent the highest victim losses in Canada, at more than $300 million in 2023, beating out romance scams, phishing and other fraud.
The scams John was involved in are often referred to as the “pig-butchering scams,” where a scammer lures a victim into an online relationship or friendship to gain their trust and then convinces them to invest in cryptocurrency.
The pig is “fattened” as the victim pours more money into crypto and watches it grow on a fake investment platform. The pig is “slaughtered” when the scammer disappears with the money.
This is what happened to an Edmonton dad who had read about big returns on investment in cryptocurrency and wanted to learn how to get involved.
Peter, whose name CBC has agreed to change to protect his professional reputation, said he saw an ad on Facebook in April 2022 offering crypto-investment coaching through a company called Cryptos Circus. He had recently inherited some money and thought if he could invest it, he might be able to afford a cabin to share with his family, as well as help his mother, who had recently moved into a nursing home.
Peter decided to inquire, and was paired with a broker named Daniel Lawrence, who trained him how and when to buy cryptocurrency to turn a profit.
“He said, ‘Let me help you take care of your family, you’ll get this money, you’ll be able to have a nice life, you’ll be able to help your mom,'” said Peter.
He first invested $250, and when that started to grow, Lawrence encouraged him to add more. Another $25,000 in deposits grew to $26,500, and $80,000 grew to more than $100,000 over the next five months.
The fact that Peter was able to withdraw his earnings from the account suppressed any suspicion that the website where he was monitoring his earnings — Cryptos-circus.com — was actually fake.
Victim involved family in scam
The investments would continue bit by bit for the next six months, with Peter speaking to Lawrence every day. Peter considered him a friend — he had even discussed taking a motorcycle trip with him.
Then, Lawrence advised him of an exclusive investment that could turn $250,000 into $1 million in just a couple of months. Peter wanted in, but he was out of money, so he asked his mother if she would let him use her house as collateral for a $250,000 line of credit.
“I showed her pictures of all of the trading that we’ve done, all of the profits I have,” he said. “My mom was willing, and trusted me to do that investment, so we took a loan out on her house to do it.”
When Peter transferred the money to Lawrence, it didn’t appear in his Cryptos Circus account. Panicked, he called his broker, who said Peter must have entered the wrong account number — an irreversible mistake in cryptocurrency transactions.
But Peter says he hadn’t entered it wrong. Growing leery, he tried to withdraw his existing balance, but he was locked out of his account and Daniel was no longer responding to his messages. It was then he knew he’d been scammed. He lost over $400,000 in total, and had to sell his mother’s home.
The name “Daniel Lawrence” was most likely fake.
“There’s probably nothing … worse than to tell your family you’ve lost everything,” Peter said. “When I included my mom in the investment, I think that was the biggest thing that really hurt the family.”
Peter has been working three jobs to recover financially. He says some family members won’t speak to him anymore.
“I’ve been labelled as a criminal in my family [by] some of them, and it has devastated me,” he said.
Scammers threatened with violence
John, who participated in scams like the one Peter described, said his bosses were ruthless.
“They don’t care about the feeling of the victim — they don’t care about anything,” he said.
John says he was expected to lure in 15 new prospective victims a day, and if workers didn’t get enough money from them, his bosses would threaten them. He said he tried to be subtly bad at scamming, but there were serious consequences for sabotaging a lead.
“I saw one of the Vietnamese [workers] being beaten very terrible… I just saw blood all over the body,” said John. “[He] was using another worker’s computer to say [to a victim], ‘Don’t invest in this website, because this website was a scam’ — so he tried to let the victim know that it was a fake investment.”
John says he was treated better than others at the compound because he spoke three languages, which made him more valuable. Still, he was determined to escape as quickly as possible. He says he used an online messaging app to reach out for help on his phone, but his bosses caught him and sold John to another scam company for $11,000 US.
While working at the new company, John tried to call for help again through a fake Twitter (now X) account. This time, he reached the International Justice Mission (IJM), a non-profit headquartered in Washington, D.C., that works to free people from human trafficking.
Jake Sims, IJM’s country director for Cambodia at the time, saw John’s cry for help and stepped in, working with authorities in order to get him out.
“Once I met with Jake, I really feel that oh, thank god, I’ve been saved,” John said.
According to the UN, at least 100,000 victims are being forced to work in these compounds in Cambodia alone.
Traffickers seek out well-educated, media-savvy
Sims said John would have been the ideal target for human traffickers.
“Your typical profile is someone who probably speaks a couple of languages, is college-educated, probably is quite savvy with technology, with social media,” said Sims. “They’re out of work, they’re seeking quite high-risk employment opportunities, so they are desperate.”
Sims says these scamming compounds are able to thrive because of the complacency of multiple actors, including social media platforms and financial institutions.
“Those actors are also going to need to play a major role in the solution,” he said.
Some social media companies, such as LinkedIn, have methods in place to ensure users are not adopting fake identities, but verification is optional. Most companies allow people to create multiple accounts using fake identities, which would only be removed if they were flagged as misrepresenting someone else.
Both John in Thailand and Peter in Edmonton say they were pulled into this scam after responding to ads they found on Facebook. Peter says he reported Cryptos Circus to Facebook, but never received a response from them.
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, told CBC they were unable to locate the Crypto Circus ads that caught Peter’s eye, because they say the ad is no longer active. Meta purges all records of past ads except those posted in the EU jurisdiction, where they are required to keep records for one year.
The company did not comment on why they delete records of past ads, but said in a statement they “encourage people to use our reporting tools to flag content on Facebook to us that they believe violates our Community Standards,” so they can review the content and “take appropriate action.”
Fraud funds rarely recouped
In the meantime, scammers are still luring in Canadians. Canada’s Anti-Fraud Centre says the half a billion dollars identified in fraud losses in 2022 was only what was reported. The centre estimates the actual losses could be 10 to 20 times higher.
Det. Dana Gehring with Edmonton Police’s serious crime unit wants to encourage more Canadians to report cybercrime, because he says it can help them track down perpetrators and recover money — something he says happens quite rarely.
Along with specialized civilian investigators, the police service works to track the flow of cryptocurrency from one exchange to another. In some instances, recovery is possible before criminal kingpins are able to extract the funds from the crypto market.
Peter is relieved to learn that some of his money could be returned, and says he has forgiven himself for what happened. However, he’s still anguished over the loss of his mother’s home and his family’s relationships.
“I just hope in the future, my family in the end can also give me the forgiveness,” he said.
With files from Tyana Grundig and Winston Szeto