SINGAPORE - When Malaysian teenager Ah Heng (not his real name) saw a Facebook post in February advertising a job for a customer service position in Cambodia, he was intrigued.
The job promised him RM4,000 (S$1,250), which was more than what Ah Heng, 19, earned monthly as a phone shop assistant back home.
But it was the beginning of a three-month ordeal during which he would be forced to work for a transnational scam syndicate, which allegedly stole millions of dollars from victims.
Tempted by a higher salary, Ah Heng left his home town in Kepong, in Kuala Lumpur, on Feb 18 for Sihanoukville, a coastal city in Cambodia.
Ah Heng said: "I thought, with this salary, I would be able to have a better life."
He was speaking to The Sunday Times, in a three-hour exclusive interview facilitated by the Global Anti-Scam Organisation (Gaso), a volunteer-run group that warns the public about scams and supports victims.
Gaso was one of several organisations involved in a transnational operation on April 5 led by the Royal Malaysia Police and the Cambodian National Police to secure the release of 16 Malaysians, including Ah Heng, who claimed to have been forced to become scammers.
Interpol, which was also involved in the operation, told The Sunday Times that among the 16 Malaysians, there were 15 men and one woman.
Interpol said: "The authorities in both countries believe there are more victims of the criminal group and the ongoing investigation is being supported by Interpol's Human Trafficking and Smuggling of Migrants unit."
Sihanoukville, where the 16 Malaysians were found, is believed to be home to multiple scam syndicates, according to reports by Al Jazeera and Nikkei Asia.
Based on photographs seen by The Sunday Times, the syndicates take over abandoned high-rise buildings, which are heavily guarded and fenced up. Within those walls, scammers of various nationalities contact hundreds of people daily via social media platforms, hoping to find scam victims.
To ensure they do not escape, those working in the syndicates are kept under tight surveillance, with CCTVs everywhere and workers' phones checked regularly. Ah Heng said he had enough to eat but living conditions were filthy.
In Singapore, more than $1 billion has been lost by scam victims since 2016. Last year, victims in Singapore lost at least $633.3 million to scams, almost 2½ times the $268.4 million stolen by scammers in 2020.
On May 31, the Singapore Police Force said that between January and May this year, its Anti-Scam Command busted seven syndicates based in Malaysia and Taiwan, with nearly 50 syndicate members arrested.
These syndicates were responsible for more than 60 cases of job, Internet love, phishing and China official impersonation scams.
At least 90 per cent of scams in Singapore originate from overseas, and the police reminded the public that once funds leave Singapore, recovering them is very difficult.
Describing the modus operandi of the Cambodia scam syndicate he worked for, Ah Heng said he was told to find photographs of beautiful young women of East Asian origin on social media and use them to create Facebook accounts. He would approach scam victims, usually middle-aged men, and convince them to join a cryptocurrency mining pool promising guaranteed returns.
Every day, he spent at least 15 hours messaging about 300 people on Facebook.
"If you didn't find enough victims, you would be punished. That was a huge source of stress," he said. "People are quite smart. If they don't know you, they don't see why they need to reply you."
Ah Heng recalled being hit all over his body at least 10 times over the three months he was held captive as he was unable to find enough victims. Others were tasered for missing their targets.
Ah Heng said: "I really wanted to leave. But there were so many security guards... it would be too dangerous to jump down as I was working on the third floor of the building."
While Ah Heng claims he did not successfully scam anybody, his "colleagues" in the syndicate did.
After convincing victims to join the fake cryptocurrency mining pool, the scammers would ask them to pay a fee to join, said Ah Heng.
However, when victims clicked to join, they were instead allowing scammers to gain access to their cryptocurrency wallets from which funds could be stolen.
While Ah Heng's syndicate allegedly targeted Facebook users in the United States and Canada, ST understands the syndicate the 15 other Malaysians were rescued from also targeted Singaporeans.
In a Zoom interview on April 19, Mr Heng Zhi Li, 31, a lawyer who is representing the 16 Malaysians, said: "We found out most of the victims were from Malaysia or Singapore. They were telling me that because Malaysia and Singapore share almost the same culture... they can communicate very easily.
"Every day, they are given a name list of people from Malaysia and Singapore to contact through Facebook and Instagram."
Both Mr Heng and Malaysia's Ambassador to Cambodia Eldeen Husaini Mohd Hashim did not know if there were any Singaporeans working in the scam syndicates in Cambodia.
Warning the public, Ambassador Eldeen told The Sunday Times: "The reason why they (the scam syndicates) are considered very successful is because... (they) use your own nationals to trick you.
"That is why it's important for us to inform (the public)... and to keep Malaysians or any nationals aware of these syndicates."
When contacted via e-mail, the Royal Malaysia Police said the case involving the 16 Malaysians remains under investigation.
In Singapore, anyone who is a member of a locally linked organised criminal group can be jailed for up to five years, fined up to $100,000, or both.