At this point, the texts have become commonplace — someone asking for a veterinarian, and when you tell them they have the wrong number, the sender apologizes before introducing themselves and trying to start a conversation.
For most who receive them, the messages go largely ignored, but for those who fall victim, they end up being bilked out of their hard-earned money. While awareness-raising articles and public service announcements have helped to an extent, the scammers are apparently often in a dire plight of their own: by and large, they appear to have been victims of human trafficking.
In an exposé gleaned from eyewitness accounts and documents from Neo Lu, a 28-year-old man sold into servitude to a Chinese gang, the New York Times reports that the conditions these trafficked individuals are forced to live under make those "wrong number" texts all the more chilling.
Lu's terrifying ordeal began when he responded to an ad for a translator job in Bangkok. Everything from the listing itself to the horror that awaited him after he was smuggled over the border between Thailand and Myanmar had been expertly concocted and executed by the masterminds behind the scheme that the United States Institute of Peace calls a "criminal cancer."
As the NYT explains, the details, documents, and images Lu shared with the newspaper from his seven months in that Myanmar work camp align with other accounts from people who were trafficked for similar scams in other Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia and Laos.
Like other scams before it, the "pig butchering" scheme — thus named because the person on the other end of the messages spends weeks pulling in lonely people, like fattening a pig for the slaughter — generally involves tricking targets into investing in crypto rackets and then snatching their real cash, never to be seen again.
While Americans have been conned out of billions of dollars in these swindles, the trafficked scammers are broken physically and mentally, the newspaper reports. Those who disobey are beaten, and those who comply are duly convinced that they'll be arrested if they return to their home countries for their complicity — and anyway, their passports and visas are often stolen by their captors, making escape all but a moot point.
As Lu told the Times, he and his fellow captives were given small cuts of what they scammed to spend on distractions like sex, drugs, or gambling in the compound where they were held. That "payment" was another way they were kept in line.
"The scam groups need to give trafficking victims the illusion that they could work their way out of this system," Lu said. "Eventually the donkey goes from trying to avoid getting whipped to chasing after the carrot dangled in front of them."
Lu, who ended up working as an accountant for his incarcerators in an ultimately and violently denied bid to be released, contacted the NYT while still in captivity. After some amount of back-and-forth, he went silent, and claims that during that time he was subject first to regular beatings and then to torture after it was revealed that he'd sent incriminating information and photos both to American journalists and to his family back home in China.
In one particularly harrowing description, the meme "the beatings will continue until morale improves" took literal meanings, with Lu describing one time period where his captors attempted to convince him between beatings to give up on his attempts to leave.
"These Chinese gangs are spreading a form of modern slavery," Lu told the newspaper. "I want the whole world to know."
More on pig butchering: Crypto Company Says Oops, Its Coin Was Being Used in a Human Trafficking Scam
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