Families pay huge ransom for 6 trafficked Filipinos in Myanmar
Toto (not his real name) worked from 9:00 p.m. to 11:30 the next day in Bangkok, Thailand.
This was not unusual for him since he used to work in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry in the Philippines.
Breakfast started around 8 p.m.
He had to be at his workstation before nine.
Otherwise, he would be fined around a thousand US dollars.
Toto spent his time chatting with older Americans or Europeans on multiple dating sites.
He used profile pictures of Asian or European girls, depending on the client’s preference.
His co-workers were also busy chatting with Caucasian men who were looking for partners.
Toto and his fellow employees were logging in at least 50 chats with each client.
Not all men were willing to pay for women they could not meet.
To lure clients and get a good payout, Toto would convince them to have a video call with one of their models.
The clients would be asked to pay in dollars through cryptocurrency.
Toto and his five Filipino companions were recruited by a Chinese company supposedly for “tech support” and as “sales agents” in Thailand.
Their monthly salary was more than a thousand dollars.
They were also given free accommodations, food, and other perks.
They claimed they did not know that they were scamming people in dating sites.
Colonel Dominador Matalang, the Philippine Embassy’s Police Attaché in Thailand, said 92 Filipinos have been rescued from these syndicates since March 2022.
He also said at least 150 Filipinos in Myanmar were first offered jobs in Thailand.
They ended up being trafficked this year.
27-year-old Toto hails from Iloilo City.
He came across a Facebook page that was recruiting Filipinos for work.
The jobs needed in Thailand were encoders, marketing staff, and platform models.
Similarly, Mia, 23 years old, and May, 27 years old, were offered jobs on Facebook by Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs).
A couple was also with the group.
The man was Jakob, 27 years old, a barista and former Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) in Saudi Arabia.
The woman was Lyka, 26 years old, a former masseuse in Malaysia.
She was recruited by a “friend of a friend.”
“Due to COVID, we lost our jobs abroad. To support our five year old kid, we grabbed this opportunity,” Jakob said.
Toto, Jakob and Lyka’s round-trip tickets and a 3-day hotel booking were facilitated by a certain “Jaylo Ramos.”
On October 11, 2022, the day of their flight, the trio was met by Jaylo for a briefing.
Even if Toto was a first-time traveler abroad, the immigration officer (IO) at NAIA did not ask him questions.
May left her job in online selling to earn more income.
She paid for her tickets through money she was able to refund later on.
She was booked in the same hotel in October, 2022 just a few days after the recruitment of persons in Toto’s group.
Amy, 38 years old, was a lady guard in Cavite.
She said Jaylo bought her tickets and paid for her hotel accommodation.
She was a relative of Jaylo.
When Amy arrived in Thailand on October 29, 2022, all she knew was that she would work in sales.
The last to arrive among them was Mia in November.
The process was the same – Jaylo met them at the airport for a briefing.
Persons identified as “Jason” and “Jack Chiw” were in Bangkok to bring them to a specific hotel where they would stay for a day.
After this, they would be flown to Mae Sot, a city in western Thailand.
One of their Chinese companions gave them 2,500 bahts for pocket money.
Mia identified “Riza” as the main recruiter, who was the Filipino wife of a Chinese based in Manila.
The rescued Filipinos claimed they were employed by a certain “He Sheng” who was based in Myanmar.
Their company was reportedly incorporated on October 4, 2016, but it had “ceased operation” on October 3, 2021.
Another company, Heng Sheng Group of Entertainment, was based in Myawaddy along the Moei River in southeastern Myanmar, close to the border with Thailand.
It operates an entertainment hub and a casino.
Toto and his companions said the dating scams were being done in a park in Me Htaw Tha Lay, a locality in Myanmar.
It is 13 kilometers from Myawaddy, which is also along Moei River.
From Mae Sot to Myanmar
Mae Sot is a border town between Thailand and Myanmar.
The two countries are divided by Moei River.
It is called Thaungyin River on the Myanmar side.
When the recruits and some of their companions from other countries reached Mae Sot, they rested in a posh hotel for about 15 minutes.
A van fetched them.
Toto recalled they had stopped at a staff house and changed vans that drove them to the other side of Moei River.
This place was far from the border guards.
From there, the group took a short boat ride.
The Chinese escorts were left on the Thailand side.
The boatmen wore military uniforms and carried guns.
At this time, although the Filipinos were starting to have doubts, they thought it was too late to back out.
Matalang said the Border Guard Force (BGF) were from Karen tribes.
When the junta took over in February 2021, the tribesmen formed an alliance with BGF.
BGF granted them control over the area.
Myanmar’s political instability makes it an ideal location for covert criminal operations.
Amy said she tried to bail out but Jack and Jason told her that she must pay 250,000 bahts in cash.
Anyway, she was hoping to simply just return to the Philippines after six months.
On Myanmar side, a van drove the Filipinos to their work site.
They passed through sugarcane plantations and forested areas until they arrived at the park where they would be working.
Toto said, “When you’re there, you can’t see anything except buildings, hills, and forests. We couldn’t leave the park even during our one day off per month.”
They also signed dubious contracts that had no specific job description or details on salary.
The contracts only stipulated a 10,000 RMB (US $1,400) fee for job renewal.
Under the Salary and Additional Terms section, there was no clear indication of the salary.
The contract stated 20% of the employee’s monthly commission would be given to the employer supposedly for safekeeping.
This fund could only be retrieved if the employee met certain requirements.
Leaving within a year or in a case of termination would result in no payment.
Expenses incurred during the hiring process and a stay at the site would need to be paid by the employee.
“We asked management if we could resign after six months. They said ‘yes’ provided that we pay 18,000 bahts for the immigration,” Toto said.
It took the Filipinos two months to realize that they were not in Thailand and that they were in a different country – Myanmar.
They were spending Thai bahts when buying things or food in supermarkets and restaurants.
The worksite was divided into three parks where thousands of Chinese and other foreigners worked in different areas.
There were ten Filipinos in the work stations.
Upon arrival, the new recruits were given chat logs to study.
It was there when the group realized they were hired to scam people on dating sites.
The group said dating sites such as Ashley Madison, Seeking.com, What’sYour Price, Miss Travel, Euro Cupid, and AsianCupid are legitimate businesses.
But these sites are also the target of scammers in siphoning money from clients in the form of bitcoins.
United States Federal Trade Commission reports around $1.3 billion worth of funds were lost by an estimated 70,000 persons in the United States in these dating scams as of 2022.
Federal Bureau of Investigation said “romance scams occur when a criminal adopts a fake online identity to gain a victim’s affection and trust. The scammer then uses the illusion of a romantic or close relationship to manipulate and/or steal from the victim.”
Toto explained the company that hired them gave them three days to find women that they could use as props on social platforms like Instagram.
These females were typically Asians, Russians, and French who appeared wealthy.
“We find women with open accounts on Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms. We use their profiles, backgrounds, the luxury items they post, travel pictures, and habits. We focus on selfie videos because we can easily manipulate the materials for our models,” Toto explained.
The “models” are people but their faces are changed through the an app called “deep fakes.”
When Toto and his co-workers found a suitable client, there would be video chats lasting for three days in the beginning.
This would be followed by video voice overs and videos that use the models.
The promised P60,000 salary for the workers turned out to be a scam too.
Toto, with his advanced skills in computer and experience, only received 22,000 bahts (P38,000) on the first month.
The others were fined by the company, leaving them with even less amount.
The firm had strict rules such as fines that were imposed on the workers if they had dirty beddings or if they failed to meet the chat log requirements.
They were also prohibited from taking pictures of the vicinity.
The employees would be punished by making them run nine laps around the compound even at midday.
The Filipinos’ salaries were sent to May’s bank account through Binance cryptocurrency exchange.
This was because May was the only one with a bank account and knowledge on Binance.
Arman Bernabe, a Binance user since 2021, said these transactions cannot be traced due to alphanumeric identifier that had no name.
Some crypto wallets do not need KYC (Know Your Customer), a mandatory process of confirming the client’s identity when opening an account.
Hence, the source of the transaction is difficult to trace.
Aside from banks, cryptocurrency can be sent through e-wallets like G-cash, PayMaya, and CoinsPH.
The recipient can cash out the bitcoins in banks and other financial centers.
Philippines has no strict laws on cryptocurrency.
Bernabe said this is why the country may be prone to illegal activities such as money laundering.
From Employers to Tormentors
Aside from giving unfair salaries, the two-hour break of the Filipinos were shortened to an hour.
The 12-hour work day increased to 15 hours.
There were many instances when the Filipinos were penalized without being told what offenses they had committed.
The workers decided to contact Matalang at the Philippine Embassy in Bangkok.
Since the group were nearing the end of their six-month term, they told their employer about their intention to go home.
It was during the last week of April when their week-long nightmare began.
Toto narrated the Chinese administrator called the six of them together.
The workers were in good spirits, hoping they would be allowed to leave.
But instead of letting them go, the employer demanded that the workers contact their families back in the Philippines and ask for a ransom of P300,000 (US $7,000) each!
Afterwards, the Filipinos were locked in separate rooms for two days without food.
Only water was given to them.
The Chinese confiscated their passports and cellphones.
When they were allowed them to use their phones, they were told to shout only the words “money, money” to the persons on the other line.
Fortunately for Amy and Toto, they were able to hide extra phones.
The next day, the group was “tried” by their employers.
“We thought we could return to the dormitory after the trial. Instead, we were beaten there. Jakob and I were hit with iron pipes. We were sent to and locked in a room that looked like a prison for three days,” Toto said.
The Filipinos realized they would be killed by the Chinese if they failed to pay the ransom.
They contacted their families, asking them to raise the amount of money being asked by the Chinese.
Initially, Toto’s family was able to sent his Chinese employer P75,000 through Binance.
They thought the money would be enough and they would be set free.
“We were taken to a room, handcuffed and made to stand there for 24 hours for five days. Whenever we said we didn’t have money, all six of us were beaten,” Toto said.
Amy was stripped naked.
The Chinese videotaped the situation and showed the clip to others.
They exchanged “ampao” as if celebrating the extent of humiliation done to their victims.
The guards were Myanmarese.
Amy said one of the guards had said sorry to them.
They would be tortured as well if they helped the Filipinos.
While Toto’s group was detained, some guards and a Sri Lankan secretly passed food and water to them.
Later, they found out that a Sri Lankan worker was also punished and locked up.
The group had no choice but to plead to their families to produce more money.
Each of them paid their jailers P300,000, except for Amy.
She could only pay 37,000 bahts and this was used for her hospitalization.
The ransom money was channeled through May’s bank account in the Philippines.
Then, the funds were converted into cryptocurrency.
Amy was afraid she would be left behind in Myanmar because she was unable to pay the full ransom.
To her surprise, the Chinese employer told her to get up and leave.
The Filipinos were severely beaten and could barely move at that point.
But they gathered their strength and left the facility.
A van took them to the river, where a boat was waiting to return them to Thailand.
The Filipinos spent a night in Mae Sot under the care of a Filipino pastor contacted by Matalang.
The next day (May 6, 2023), they were brought to a shelter called the Assistance To Nationals (ATN) in Bangkok.
The arrangement was made by a team from the Philippine Embassy in Bangkok and a representative from the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Commission (PAOCC).
The immediate repatriation of the victims was worked out.
How were the Filipinos Released?
“During the first rescue, someone who had contacts inside gave my number to those who were left inside, in case they wanted to be rescued,” Matalang recounted.
This recent rescue of trafficked victims is complicated due to lack of passports, and expired or fake visas provided by the Chinese criminal syndicates.
Philippines has no resident police attaché in Myanmar.
Although Matalang covers and monitors Mekong region, he has no document recognized by Myanmar government that he can use to coordinate police matters in this country.
Filing a Case
Jakob and Lyka may not file a case of human trafficking against Jaylo because they are afraid for the safety of their families.
Since Amy is related to Jaylo, she told the group she would not support them if they would file a complaint.
Mia, May and Toto are firm in their decision to sue Jaylo.
Matalang said the embassy can only encourage and assist the survivors of trafficking.
Jurisdiction brings some complications to the process since the recruitment started in the Philippines.
Then, the next incidents occurred in Thailand.
The victims ended up in Myanmar.
He advised Filipino job seekers to be more discerning.
“The offer of high salaries, free accommodations or commissions are too good to be true. Do not end up as a victim of trafficking,” he advised them.
Once the documents of the rescued Filipinos are ready, they will be repatriated and brought to the Inter-agency Council Against Trafficking in Manila.
After he was rescued, Toto made a video call to his family in the Philippines.
He joked about not wanting to see any Chinese at this time.
He showed his brother-in-law his multiple physical injuries, including a severe bruise on his thigh.
Meanwhile, all of Jakob and Lyka’s savings have been depleted.
The interests of the debts they owed the loan sharks are increasing.
For her part, May is facing the same financial problem.
Her husband tells her everything would be alright somehow.
“I was sending my brother to college, and we already sold our lot. We have debts,” Toto said.
“I hope government can help us get back on our feet,” he pleaded.
Toto now wants keep at bay the memory of the trauma he and his companions suffered in the hands of a cruel scam syndicate.