YouTuber, fraud investigation start-up among those stepping up to fight scams
Ugandan national Francis Kamugisha was desperate to escape the scam centre in Myanmar, where he was being beaten and forced to work, but many law enforcement agencies he contacted could not help him.
The 33-year-old, who had to hide the fact that he was trying to flee, learnt that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were helping people like him.
He contacted the International Justice Mission, an NGO involved in protecting people in poverty from crime such as human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Five months later, the scam centre operators released him.
“As I fled across the Mekong River from Myanmar to Laos, I was so scared I would get shot and my body dumped in the water. I felt relieved only when I was on the plane back to Uganda. Even then, there was a lot weighing on my mind – I had no money and no home to return to,” he added.
The scam scourge has prompted a number of non-profit organisations, start-ups and individuals to work with law enforcement agencies worldwide to tackle the problem.
These include a YouTuber who hacks into scammers’ devices to expose their activities, and a start-up with expertise in cryptocurrency fraud investigation.
There are also organisations that tap their network of contacts to rescue people forced to work in scam compounds in South-east Asia.
Mr Jorij Abraham, managing director of the Global Anti-Scam Alliance (Gasa), told The Straits Times that these groups and individuals bring unique skills to the fight against scams.
He said: “For example, YouTubers like Pierogi (Scammer Payback) hack into scam centres to shed light on how they operate and expose corruption among the police.
“What he’s doing is illegal. The police cannot do that. But he is making visible the extent of these issues.”
Ultimately, governments and law enforcement agencies need to implement legislative changes to tackle the root of the problem, Mr Abraham said.
He added: “The biggest challenge is getting law enforcement around the world to share information about scam networks quickly and act on the intelligence to arrest scammers.
“Every country needs its own anti-scam centre, like the one in Singapore, to create a global law enforcement network.”
Gasa is a non-profit organisation that brings together stakeholders such as policymakers, law enforcement agencies and cyber-security agencies to share knowledge on scams.
In October, it organised the Global Anti-Scam Summit in Lisbon, Portugal.
At the event, Gasa revealed the findings of a study it conducted with data service provider ScamAdviser.
It showed that scammers had stolen an estimated US$1.02 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) globally between August 2022 and August 2023, compared with US$55.3 billion lost for the whole of 2021, and US$47.8 billion lost in 2020.
In Singapore, victims lost a total of $660.7 million in 2022, up from $632 million in 2021, data from the Singapore Police Force showed.
Mr Abraham said scammers are quick to adopt new technologies, such as cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence, adding that law enforcement agencies may not be equipped with the skills to investigate crimes on these platforms.
To help bridge this gap, Mr Nirmal Shah, a 39-year-old American with a background in engineering and computer science, set up crypto fraud investigation firm Crypto-Helpline in late 2021.
Based in the United States and India, the start-up works with law enforcement agencies around the world to help victims trace and recover stolen crypto funds.
A team of four investigators, including Mr Shah, follow the trail of money using blockchain investigation tools and present the evidence to the authorities to make a case for freezing accounts that hold tainted funds.
Six others in the firm help with the legal aspects of cases and with training law enforcement agencies on how to investigate crypto fraud.
In June 2023, Crypto-Helpline helped a Mumbai-based businessman recover his life savings of US$40,000, which he had lost in an investment scam.
Scammers had posed as a woman and chatted with the victim for weeks to earn his trust. Promising profitable returns, they convinced him to invest in a fake crypto trading platform in February 2022.
For over a year, Crypto-Helpline worked with the Mumbai police to track down the scammers’ accounts and produce a court order to seize and return the funds to the victim.
The start-up has since investigated over 200 cases of crypto scams.
Mr Shah, who was a scam victim himself, said full recovery of funds is rare as there are several challenges that impede the progress of cases.
“Crypto exchanges often operate outside the legal jurisdiction of the victim’s country, and there can be language barriers and long delays, sometimes up to months, in getting a reply,” he said.
He added that the process is tedious, with law enforcement agencies needing to produce a court order before seizing funds, but that can be difficult when exchanges do not cooperate in giving the details of suspects.
Mr Shah hopes a more effective framework can be established to give victims, exchanges, law enforcement and lawyers a clearer idea of the process to tackle crypto fraud.
A new type of victim
Increasingly, victims of scammers now include those trafficked by criminal gangs and forced to work in scam centres in South-east Asia.
A report by the United Nations published in August found that at least 120,000 people in Myanmar and around 100,000 in Cambodia may be trapped in scam operations.
These scam centre compounds are believed to have generated at least US$7.8 billion in revenue globally in 2021, the UN said.
Once inside the compounds, the victims’ passports are confiscated, and they are forced to defraud victims. Those who try to escape are subject to abuse such as beatings.
Non-profit organisation Global Anti-Scam Organisation (Gaso) and social enterprise Humanity Research Consultancy (HRC) are among groups involved in rescuing people trapped in scam mills.
Gaso founder Jane, who declined to reveal her real name, said the organisation puts pressure on local law enforcement officials or negotiates directly with those running scam centres for the release of trafficked victims.
The 35-year-old Singaporean said: “We show them media reports of people getting released from scam compounds in the area and threaten to go to the media if they do not comply.
“For victims who are scared of, or do not trust, local officials, we help them assess how best to escape from the compounds as we are familiar with the area. They are also informed of the risks of trying to escape.”
Since its inception in July 2021, Gaso has been involved in the rescue of over 500 victims from scam compounds, said Jane.
Ms Mina Chiang, founder and director of HRC, said her organisation has helped over 70 people get out of fraud factories in South-east Asia, or assisted them to return home.
In Cambodia, HRC does so by contacting politicians who are willing to use their influence to help these victims get out. For those able to leave the compounds, HRC helps by arranging transport and accommodation.
Ms Chiang said: “When victims ask for help, we give their details to the politicians we trust, who negotiate with the crime syndicates to get them out.
“Even if we know for a fact that there are hundreds of people inside, we are able to get only a handful of people out at a time.”
She said many scam operations in South-east Asia flourish well within the reach of law enforcement officials, but these individuals turn a blind eye to – or even actively protect – the scam compounds for a cut of the proceeds.
Her consultancy, which provides research and training services, is pushing for governments around the world to impose sanctions on the criminals behind these scam mills.
These could include freezing their assets, banning them from entering certain countries, and blocking their trade activities.
Said Ms Chiang: “Some of these syndicate leaders are very public and well known. They may even have charity foundations to whitewash their criminal activities.
“When the local justice system where criminals operate is not able to stop the crime, criminal accountability from outside the country may be the only effective option left.”
Hacking scammers’ devices
One YouTuber has taken it upon himself to fight back against scammers.
He goes by the moniker Pierogi and has amassed 6.7 million followers on his channel Scammer Payback.
He beats scammers at their own game by hacking into their devices and gathering information about them, including their names, the location of the call centres where they work, the types of scams they perpetrate, and how much money they have stolen.
In his videos, Pierogi poses as a potential scam victim, usually an elderly person, by using voice-changing technology. Scammers fly into a rage when he reveals their names and locations to them and deletes files from their computers.
On several occasions, Pierogi and his team of 10 producers have been able to stop American victims from losing their savings by alerting them to the traps laid by scammers in India.
He told ST that he pieces together the evidence gathered and shares them with law enforcement agencies in the US and India, but it can be frustrating when nothing comes out of it.
Pierogi said: “Investigations can take up so much time because you have to sit there and watch the scams as they are happening. If you go in and interrupt, they’re going to know that you’re up to something and shut it down.
“Before the channel got big, nobody (law enforcement) really cared about the information we gave, but things are improving now.”
In July, after over 14 months of data collection, Pierogi worked with Indian law enforcement to raid a call centre in Punjab, India, which led to the arrest of 30 scammers and two kingpins.
He estimates they saved victims from transferring about US$10,000 by dismantling the call centre and stopping wire transfers.
“I’m going to give it my everything to try and help as many people as I can. It’s my calling to do this and the reason why I wake up every single day,” he said.