BATAM, Indonesia — Indonesian police said Wednesday they have arrested 88 Chinese citizens for involvement in a cross-border telephone and online romance scam syndicate after receiving a tip from the Chinese security ministry.
The suspects, including five women, were arrested on Batam island, next to Singapore, said Riau Islands police spokesperson Zahwani Pandra Arsyad. They were working from a shophouse, a building with mixed commercial and residential use, in an industrial park. Police believe the suspects are members of a telephone fraud and online love scam syndicate, Arsyad said.
Most of their targets appeared to be fellow Chinese who were called over the internet and tricked into transferring money after the callers manipulated the “human emotion” of the victims, Arsyad said. A preliminary investigation showed the gang had been operating since early this year, ensnaring hundreds of victims in China, but it is unclear how much money they had collected.
“We are still investigating this case, including whether any Indonesians among the victims,” Arsyad said, adding that none of the suspects can speak or write the Indonesian language. “If there are none, we would deport all of them immediately.”
Arsyad said members of the syndicate had come from China to Indonesia for three months at a time since January, using tourist visas, and they were committing the crimes from Indonesia after China cracked down on their networks.
He said Indonesian police are working closely with immigration officials and China’s Ministry of Public Security in dealing with the suspects.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission in 2019 announced that romance-related scams have generated more losses than any other consumer fraud reported to the agency. It said romance scams vary but criminals typically find their victims online, though a dating site or social media.
Scammers usually create a phony profile, often building a believable persona with another person's photo and direct communication. They woo the victim, building affection and trust until they see an opportunity to ask for money. The reasons for the request can vary but requests for money to pay for a medical emergency or travel costs for a long-awaited visit are common.
In a report Wednesday, the United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights said criminal gangs have forced hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast Asia into participating in unlawful online scams, including false romantic ploys, bogus investment pitches and illegal gambling schemes.
It cited “credible sources” that at least 120,000 people in strife-torn Myanmar and roughly 100,000 in Cambodia “may be held in situations where they are forced to carry out online scams.”
The report shed a new light on cybercrime scams that have become a major issue in Asia, with many of the workers trapped in virtual slavery and forced to participate in scams targeting people over the internet.
Laos, the Philippines and Thailand were also cited among the main countries of destination or transit for tens of thousands of people. Criminal gangs have increasingly targeted migrants, and lure some victims by false recruitment — suggesting they are destined for real jobs.
Indonesia in 2017 arrested 419 Chinese and Taiwanese citizens who were involved in a telephone fraud and online investment scam syndicate. They were repatriated to face charges in their homeland after spending two months in Indonesian jails and being fined $770 for violating their tourist visas.
In 2019, Indonesian police arrested 85 Chinese citizens for involvement in a similar case.