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The people behind online scams may be scam victims themselves

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Last month, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced an agreement between the United States and China to clamp down on online scams. But some of those scammers could be victims themselves. NPR's Emily Feng brings us the story of one of them.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Thirty-seven-year-old Xu Bochun dreamed of working in the movies, and he finally found a gig last summer with a theater troupe. He went to meet his new colleagues near the China-Myanmar border, but something felt off.

XU BOCHUN: (Through interpreter) I told my new colleagues, this doesn't look like a theater. Where are the lights? Where is the stage?

FENG: Xu tried to run for it.

XU: (Through interpreter) Suddenly we were surrounded by about a dozen men in camouflage carrying knives. We freaked out.

FENG: His new bosses turned out to be traffickers who marched him into northern Myanmar and brought him into a compound built by a Chinese conglomerate called the Fully Light Group. The group did not respond to a request for comment. Xu says he was locked on the seventh floor of a building, and through the barred windows, he could see a huge casino.

XU: (Through interpreter) Whether it was the floor manager or the boss of the company, it was all run by Chinese people.

FENG: One day, he says a group of four young men rebelled, grabbing at the guards' guns.

XU: (Through interpreter) The bosses gave the order to fire. And the guards gunned down those four men.

FENG: Then Xu was put to work with about 90 other people in the building on what they call pig butchering scams - fattening up the Chinese and European victims he'd find on the dozens of Facebook and Instagram accounts he'd created. Once he struck up a conversation, he'd ask victims to send him growing amounts of crypto currency by promising them high returns.

XU: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: He asked for USDT, also known as Tether. It's a cryptocurrency pegged to the value of the U.S. dollar. Xu would ask his victims to send more and more. Failure to scam enough money and his bosses threatened to sell him to other, more vicious cartels. This scam compound Xu was locked in rose out of something seemingly unrelated.

JASON TOWER: Casinos were the initial function of this.

FENG: This is Jason Tower. He follows Myanmar for the Congressionally funded United States Institute of Peace. He says about 20 years ago, Chinese-run syndicates started popping up outside of China, building economic zones that were actually used for money laundering and online gambling.

TOWER: By around 2016, that's when you started to see some of these illicit capital networks build something of a foothold in the southern part of the China-Myanmar border. You saw, like, this huge explosion of investment.

FENG: A lot of these zones were in the Southeast Asian country of Laos. In 2007, its impoverished government leased about 12 square miles to a Chinese gambling tycoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FENG: I visited the zone this past February. It's now filled with luxury condos...

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE CHIMING)

FENG: ...And ritzy casinos. Other syndicates copied this casino model in Cambodia and Vietnam, among other countries. But then COVID hit.

TOWER: And you suddenly had a crisis across this industry where the gambling outfits could no longer really recruit the labor they needed to operate the online casinos, and they turned to kidnapping.

FENG: Kidnapping people like Xu to run global online scams instead. One study from the University of Texas Austin this March estimates such scams have stolen about $75 billion from people worldwide. During my visit to the Laos compound, Chinese workers were still buzzing about a raid last year conducted by Laotian and Chinese police.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: This Chinese resident says the Laos zone is now way more tightly regulated by China, which is why in 2023, when Xu was kidnapped, he was sold to a compound in northern Myanmar, farther from China's reach. That didn't stop Xu from trying to escape, and last fall, his chance came.

XU: (Through interpreter) My manager went into the bathroom to snort methamphetamines, so I immediately seized the chance to text my childhood best friend. I sent her the words northern Myanmar.

FENG: The friend went to the police, but they couldn't extricate Xu from Myanmar. So Xu's family offered to pay a ransom, and last October, Xu was marched to the China-Myanmar border.

XU: (Through interpreter) For the first time in three months, I saw the sun. I saw hope.

FENG: His mother handed over the equivalent of $150,000. He says she'd sold the family home. Xu is one of the 44,000 Chinese citizens China says have been rescued from the centers. Xu has a real job now working in the human resources department at a company in Shanghai, and he's just happy to be alive.

Emily Feng, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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