Cambodia police probe massive Chinese call center scam

Police in Cambodia said they had arrested 225 Chinese nationals, 25 of them women, on suspicion of using Internet calls for an extortion scheme. (Reuters)
Updated 20 August 2017
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Cambodia police probe massive Chinese call center scam

PHNOM PENH: No sooner had the 11-story apartment building in Phnom Penh’s affluent Tuol Kouk district been finished than dozens of young Chinese men and women moved in loaded with desks and laptops, said neighbors.

“I thought they were moving an office in,” said Eng Somnang, 20, who owns a noodle soup shop directly opposite and watched them arrive early this month.

Police in the Cambodian capital accuse them of doing exactly that: setting up a criminal call center with more than 200 Chinese nationals to carry out a telephone and Internet scam on victims in China.

Police raided the building on Wednesday to stop what they said was the latest operation of a type that has duped people out of billions of dollars — with scammers operating from countries that have good Internet access and relaxed visa rules.

From a balcony of the building in Phnom Penh, some of the suspects told Reuters they had not been given food and police were not allowing them to leave.

One of the suspects, Fang, 30, from China, said she came to Cambodia on a tourist visa. She said there were more than 200 people inside the building but declined to answer questions about what they had been doing there.

Police said they had arrested 225 Chinese nationals, 25 of them women, on suspicion of using Internet voice calls for an extortion scheme. They will be sent to China to face justice, police investigators said.

Since 2011, Cambodia has deported 800 people from mainland China and Taiwan, arrested on suspicion of telecoms scams.

Neighbours in Tuol Kouk, dotted with large villas, described the occupants of the building as quiet. They said it had been rented out to tenants for $25,000 a month. The owner was not available to comment.

The occupants kept to themselves, venturing out only at night to get food, neighbors said.

“They were mostly men, some women. Maybe 20, 23 years old. Young,” said Eng Somnang. “When people delivered food to them they were not allowed inside.”

In the past, Chinese fraud suspects have often entered Cambodia on tourist visas, said Uk Haisela, chief of investigation at Cambodia’s immigration department.

The victims of the scammers were often civil servants and retired officials from mainland China, he said.

One of the suspected telephone fraudsters who Uk Haisela interrogated said he made up to $70,000 per week.

Uk Haisela said victims were sometimes blackmailed and the suspects used Cambodia because it was easy to stay in the country and Internet speeds were fast.

Cambodia was able to track the gangs with help from China, he said.

“China sends IP addresses to us ... Once we make arrests, we report to the Chinese embassy,” Uk Haisela told Reuters.

China’s Foreign Ministry said there had always been close cooperation with Cambodia.

“China appreciates Cambodia’s cooperation with China on jointly cracking down on telecoms fraud and other cross-border crime,” it said in a statement.

The scams have become a headache for both China and Taiwan, bringing cooperation between them, but also objections from Taiwan because of the deportation of suspects from the self-ruled island to face trial on the mainland.

Suspected scammers have been arrested elsewhere in Asia and Asia.

This month, 77 Chinese fraud suspects were sent to China from Fiji. More than 150 were detained in Indonesia over a scam that police said had netted about $450 million.

Scammers choose countries where they think law enforcement is weak and governments are unlikely to see them as a priority, said Lennon Chang, a criminologist and expert in telecoms fraud at Monash University in Melbourne.

“We might be able to call them criminal nomads,” he told Reuters, saying they moved every couple of weeks.

The fraudsters sometimes posed as officials and tricked people into disclosing bank account details, he said.

“The leaders are not easy to discover. All are young kids. Even if the crime syndicates are discovered and dissolved, the leaders will be able to start a new group in a short period of time.”

- Reuters


Lebanon’s Hariri calls for cabinet solidarity in budget debate

Updated 33 min 36 sec ago
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Lebanon’s Hariri calls for cabinet solidarity in budget debate

  • The PM said cabinet ministers need to be united and responsible
  • Lebanon’s debt is almost 150% of its GDP
BEIRUT, June 18 : Lebanon Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri on Tuesday called for parliament to quickly approve the country’s 2019 budget and urged his coalition government to avoid internal disputes.
The cabinet this month agreed a budget plan that shrinks the projected fiscal deficit by 4 percentage points from last year to 7.6% by cutting spending and raising taxes and other fees.
“What I want during the debate is for us to be responsible and united, and not contradictory,” Hariri said in a statement, addressing cabinet ministers as to their comportment during the parliament debate.
Parliament’s finance committee is debating the draft budget and has suggested amendments, local newspapers reported. It will then put the budget to the full assembly to ratify it.
Parliament is mostly composed of parties that are also present in the coalition government and which supported the budget there.
Since the budget was agreed there have been fierce arguments between parties in the coalition over several subjects, though these have not targeted the budget.
Lebanon has one of the world’s heaviest debt burdens, equivalent to about 150% of GDP, and the International Monetary Fund has urged it to cut spending.
“We have held 19 cabinet meetings to agree on this draft budget and these sessions were not for fun, but for deep, detailed debate over every clause and every idea,” Hariri said.
“For this reason, I consider it the responsibility of each of us in government to have ministerial solidarity...to defend in parliament the decision that we have taken together,” he added.
After the 2019 budget is agreed, the cabinet must quickly start working on the 2020 budget and on approving the first phase of a program of investments toward which foreign donors have offered $11 billion in project financing. (Reporting by Angus McDowall, editing by Ed Osmond)