Matt Friedman, CEO Mekong Club

In this podcast episode, host Matt Friedman discusses his extensive experience in addressing the issue of human trafficking, spanning over 32 years. He has worked predominantly in Asian countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, and now Hong Kong. Throughout his career, Matt has tackled various forms of human trafficking, including sex trafficking, forced labor, and, more recently, the trafficking of individuals to scam centers. Tune in to hear his insights and expertise on this critical global issue. 

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Intro: Welcome, dear listeners, to a groundbreaking episode of Free To Fly´s podcast. Today, we are diving deep into a topic that’s not just eye-opening but also downright mind-boggling. We’re joined by a true expert in the field, a man whose work sheds light on a disturbing yet incredibly important subject: the intersection of scams and human trafficking.

Our guest today is none other than Matt Friedman, a renowned authority on the subject. Matt has spent years researching, investigating, and combating the evolving tactics that criminals use to exploit vulnerable individuals. What you’re about to hear might shake your understanding of human trafficking to its core.

Scamming – it’s a word that we associate with financial fraud and deceit, but as Matt will reveal, it’s now a new gateway for people to be trafficked. The methods used are not only sophisticated but also horrifyingly effective. This episode is a wake-up call, a call to action to protect yourself and your loved ones.

So, buckle up and get ready for a mind-blowing journey as we explore this dark and evolving trend. Let’s learn how to be aware and arm ourselves with knowledge, for knowledge is the first step towards prevention


Interviewee: Matt Friedman, CEO and Founder of the Mekong Club

Interviewer: Phinius Sebatsane

List of Acronyms: PS: Phinius Sebatsane

                                        MF: Matt Friedman


PS:  Welcome to our Free to Fly podcast – my name is Phinius Sebatsane. For our new listeners, – Free to Fly is an anti-trafficking organisation and we work on rescuing children from vulnerable situations.  Today I have an amazing guest I’m a going to be talking to about scamming and how it’s connected to human trafficking. Matt, please just briefly introduce yourself to us.

MF: My name is Matt Friedman, I’m very pleased to be here today. I’ve been addressing the issue of human trafficking for about 32 years, most of that time in Asia. I’ve lived in Nepal, in Bangladesh, in Thailand and now I’m in Hong Kong.  Much of my human trafficking experience has been focussing in just about in everything – sex trafficking, forced labour and more recently in human trafficking to scam centres.

P.S:  I’m so grateful to be having this conversation, because – and my family, have been getting a lot of dodgy messages and emails.  It will be good for everyone to be educated about how to navigate around those issues and to share with our families.

Can you provide an overview of the latest trends in scamming that have emerged recently.

MF:  Up until recently, scamming has been one of those things where people would set up scam centres, pay people and then go after people’s money.  The new trend is that they are actually human trafficking people into scam centres, which is something that didn’t exist two or three years ago.  A lot of this came done to Covid.  What happened during Covid is, a lot of the criminals couldn’t go out and rape and pillage and do the usual things that they did, and they came to realise that if they reached out to people with lies about things, every 10th person would give money, so they decided to see if they could get some people to be hired to do this type of scamming.  They tried to get Asians to do it, but a lot of Asian people weren’t interested, so they decided to bring them to the site and then we’ll convince them somehow.  In Cambodia they tricked and deceived people in going to Cambodia and when they got there, they forced them to scam – 14/15 hours a day every day.

PS:  Are there specific people that they are targeting – or do they just go for anyone who is vulnerable. 

MF:  They’re looking for people in a certain age group – it’s not just women, it’s men as well.  For example, there are platforms that focus on middle-aged divorced men.  So you have an individual who is, perhaps, away from his family – he’s lonely, he has money in his bank, and so what they do, is they have an ‘accidental’ meeting.  This is what you’re seeing in your text messages and so forth, where the person says Hi Michael, how are you.  Then the guy’s name is not Michael, so he says, I’m not Michael.  She comes back and says – I’m so sorry, but you’re so nice and so polite.  My name is Susan, where are you.  And so, over time, a relationship develops through this process.  So you have all of these text messages, or emails, going out randomly, with the hope and expectation that somebody will respond.  And then, once there is a response, they develop and sense of trust, in a relationship, through this interaction.

PS:  Do you think they are profiling the person before they engage with them – getting information about the person before they interact with them.

MF:  Well, they’re in it for the numbers game: they know that if they put a thousand of these things out, maybe they’ll get one person to hit.  So there’s a lot of these things going out there.  I’m on linkedin, and on a regular basis I have people approach me and say, I’m so-and-so, thank you very much for allowing me to join your network, – where are you.  And then they start the conversation from that.  If you look at their profile, you see that they only have 5 followers, … and you know, they went to Harvard, … – it’s a weird resume – it just doesn’t look right.  So, the point is, they try to target when they can, and there are certain scam centres that use different approaches for that particular purpose, but the idea is to develop a sense of trust; to develop a relationship; to develop a means of communicating with somebody who perhaps has a vulnerability – loneliness.  Maybe they don’t have a lot of friends, – any number of things.

PS:  I’ve noticed that they will target someone by using a specific person – for example, using a woman to interact with a man.  Do you think they paly around with gender – the psychology behind what will break the ice.

MF:  They do – and with the woman that they profile, it would be the profile of an individual man who is around the same age.  If it’s a man, its someone who’s 10 or 20 years younger; then the man is smitten by the fact that a young woman would be interested enough to be having this conversation.  So certainly, gender is a ploy as part of this process.  In fact, in some cases, what you have is, the person says, I’m from Thailand, you’re in Hong Kong, and chat back and forth and develop an online relationship and then she says, why don’t you come and meet me.  Why don’t you go to Cambodia, I’ll meet you there.  And when we go there, we can continue our relationship.  So, the draw in this particular case, is the relationship itself, – being able to meet the person in person.

PS: Cause I remember my cousin one day got an sms, his from from Limpopo one of the states in South Africa, and he was asked to come down to Johannesburg at the airport. And he asked me for money so that he can travel from Limpopo to Johannesburg and I was like ‘for what?’ and he was like I got this sms and then he sent it to me. And there was a lot of money and there were bags and photos. He almost went there then I realised that it’s a scam but he was not aware. But I realised like you said you say they target lonely people. The lonely people , the desperate people, the people who are unemployed. My cousin, at the time was unemployed. He almost became a victim of human trafficking because he even put himself into debt and told the people he would bring the money back once he gets to Johannesburg and got the money that he was shown on the phone. So what you are talking about is true and its very close. I have experienced it at some point through a famliy member. Its scary. Looking at unemployment in South Africa I can see how people would engage in that manner and even put themselves in debt and end up engaging with somebody who is a trafficker. Another question I wanted to ask you is how have scammers adapted into modern technologies and platforms to carry their activities.

MF:  Let’s start with social media, and go a little deeper into that.  So, Facebook and Instagram and Tik-Tok and all of these things have the potential for people to interact with other people.  Generally what is done is, an offer of some kind is made.  Whether it’s in Africa, or in Asia, there are young people looking for work, and so these ads that would be on social media basically say if you want to make US$5000 a month and have a great adventure and go to an exotic place, then contact us.  These are the skill that you need.  Sometimes, a job interview even takes place, over Zoom, where they’re actually having a conversation and asking questions and so forth.  So the person feels pretty comfortable that what they’re going to be doing is real.  They get plane tickets sent to them, they go to Cambodia, they get out of the airport and they get taken off to one of these scam centres.  What happens when they get there is that they are forced to scam others from 8 in the morning until 11 o’clock, and if they don’t meet their targets, they are beaten, they’re tortured, – terrible things happen to them.  According to the United Nations report that just came out on this particular issue, there’s about 120 thousand young, educated professionals from not only Asia but from Africa, North America and so forth, that are in Cambodia and Myanmar, another 100 thousand.  Actually, the numbers are much higher than that.  But the point is, and what makes this different, is that you have individuals who think that they have this great opportunity – they end up going to a particular place, and when they get there, then they’re forced to do these criminal activities.  And if they don’t succeed, terrible things happen to them. 

Now when it comes to the technology aspects of this, another thing that we’re seeing is that, for example, chat GBT is used to develop the scripts, to identify whether or not a particular approach is using.  So what these criminals have, are these big manuals that are in Cantonese and English and various languages that say, this is what you say to get the conversation started; this is what you say if an individual says this . .  And so they’re looking at these.  Another thing is, AI is used to develop web sites that look like they’re very real.  So you’re entering into a space, from the scamming perspective, – that you think is a legitimate web site and it’s got the legitimate name of the organisation and logo and everything, when in fact, it’s completely fake.  As you get people to invest crypto coins and various other things into this, they have control over what is happening with your money.

PS:  This is scary: so you get activists, or organisations that frequently do fund raising and people (scammers) take their profile and open fake accounts and request money from people to that fake account until it gets discovered and reported.  So people high jack profiles from social media.

MF:  Let me just describe one other thing that we’re seeing: for example, in North America, AI is able to take a voice, – you know, you’ve heard this with music.  You take a singer’s voice and you can produce a song.  They get the voice of an individual and then they figure out where the parents are of this 15 or 20 year old girl and do a voice-over that says, Mom, I’m in trouble.  I can’t talk now.  Send money to this particular location.  So the parents obviously hear their daughter’s voice and think there’s an issue and immediately act and send money off to this location without thinking to call the girl to see if she’s okay.  This type of approach, using artificial intelligence as a means of creating a persona that’s not real, is very much part of the process, too.

PS:  How is scamming connected to human trafficking.  What’s the connection between the two things.

MF:  In its essence, human trafficking is where a person is taken away and put into a situation where they’re forced to do something and they don’t get paid.  In sex trafficking, for example, you have a woman who’s abducted or some kind of fraudulent debt is put in place and then she’s forced to be in a brothel to pay that back.  And if she doesn’t comply, terrible things happen to her.  This is exactly the same process, but the person is tricked into a situation where they’re taken away from their community and then put into a centre where basically, they can’t leave.  And so the scam centres that I’m talking about would be a compound that would have 9 foot walls and barbed wire on the top and inside the compound there would be 8- or 10-story buildings that on each floor have literally hundreds of people who are forced to scam.  If these individuals don’t meet their target of, let’s say, 14 – 15 thousand a day in scamming profits, then they get Tasered – they get beaten.  They often get sold between scams hunters as well, for as much as 10 thousand US$ a pop.  In fact, you can on ‘telegram’, which is a sort of social media platform and you can see – we have 2 Bangladeshis, or, we have and Ethiopian and a Chinese person – this is the cost of them.  It’s right out in the open.  It’s not even hidden.  Part of the reason for that is that the profits generated from the scam centres are so high and so obscene that they can buy the local community, law enforcement and the politicians and so forth to turn the other way.  As a result of this you’re seeing these enclaves of people finding themselves in these scam centres.  One particular location that we recently found had over 30 thousand people in one compound.  The difficulty with this particular crime is, human trafficking has always been what we’ve seen – forced labour, sex trafficking.  Scamming has been something else.  People get paid and they scam others.  Now you have human trafficking into a scam centre.  It’s a completely new hybrid situation – it’s a spotted zebra in a sense.  And what this does, according to the traffickers and scammers, is it allows them to have almost like, an ATM machine.  If you get a person and you force them to scam, that money just gets generated over and over again.  It’s not like drug trafficking where you have to take the drugs, move them and sell them.  Once you have the person in place, all that money comes to the criminal himself or herself.

PS:  So you’re saying scammers are victims of human trafficking.

MF:  That’s correct.  And this is new, because when we hear about the scammers, we’re really upset and angry with these terrible people – why would they do that.  But, these individuals are victims themselves.  What happens sometimes – say you have a person from Hong Kong who was trafficked into a Cambodia site and somehow gets out – maybe he’s sold back to his family or whatever – and he gets back to Hong Kong, he gets arrested because he was scamming people in Hong Kong.  He did this scamming because he was forced to do it, but still, he did an illegal activity.  So to add insult to injury, you have a person who not only had this terrible experience, but then when he or she gets back, basically the nightmare continues.

PS:  How does the justice system work around that because it sounds very complex: if a person is a scammer, as a victim of human trafficking, and gets caught, how does the justice work – it’s not as though the person wanted to do that.

MF:  More traditional human trafficking has always had this issue.  For example, if a woman or girl is forced into prostitution, but prostitution is illegal in that country, then technically, what the law is supposed to do is say, you get out of jail free because you were forced to do this.  But Hong Kong doesn’t have that law.  They don’t even have anything related to human trafficking into scam centres in any legislative body, so as a result of that, this is just a person, irrespective of whether they were forced to do it or not, that tricked and deceived other people and then came back.  So this person will basically be called out and he or she will have to go to jail.  So it is a very complicated thing, as you say.

PS:  Are there any recent events that you’ve been dealing with that are connected to scamming and human trafficking.

MF:  I think it was covid that set the stage for this to happen.  Had covid not happened, you would have had criminal behaviour in South East Asian countries just going out and doing things.  But when all of a sudden the criminals couldn’t leave, and nobody could come in and use their illegal casinos or whatever, then you had a situation where they said, well let’s see what we can do online.  Scamming in general went up significantly during covid.  For example, if you look at the number that was used last year in the United States of money that was lost to scamming, it was 8.8 billion US$ which was a 30% increase from the year before.  If you go pre-covid, it was quite low – you didn’t have that much going on, but you had people sitting in their houses, on the internet, and you had criminals on the internet, and that opened the door for this type of criminal activity to take place.

PS:  So what can we do – as people who are vulnerable – from poor countries, poor communities, how can they protect themselves from scammers and human trafficking.

MF:  Let me describe a typical scenario which is called ‘pig butchering’.  It’s called pig butchering because the victim is a scam victim who will be ‘fattened’ to a point where, once they’ve given all their money, they’ll be slaughtered.  The way it works is – you have one of those random text messages, and the person bites and then they start developing a relationship: he thinks she’s a 25 year old girl and he’s a fifty year old guy.  They go back and forth and back and forth, so for a month there’s no discussion of anything – they’re just developing a sense of trust in the relationship.  Then she’ll say – oh I got this great opportunity: I made US$5000 yesterday on crypto.  She doesn’t say anything else – he doesn’t take the bait.  Next time she says – oh, I did it again.  Then he says – ok, what is it.  What are you doing.

 She says, ok, let me show you my screen and she shows this web site, and she puts 5000 in and next day she shows she has 10 000.  She says why don’t you try it.  So he puts 5000 in, next day it’s 10 000.  She says take the money out.  He takes the money out – and thinks, wow – this is real.  Then she says, well put 10 000 in.  Next day it’s 20 000.  Wow.  That’s really good.  Then after a week goes by and nothing is said about this.  Then she says, – there’s this great deal.  If you can come up with a million US$, not only will you double it – you could get 5 times that.  You saw that this is real cause you took all your money out.  The guy says, I have 700 000.  She says borrow the money from somebody else – go to your family, go to your friends or whatever.  Get the million because then you can have 5 times that.  So he gets the money, puts it in there and he sees the website and 1 million becomes 5 million.  He says wow that’s great and tries to take the money out and she comes back and says there are these rules and regulations – in order to take out the money, you have to do this .it’s going to cost you another 20 or 30 thousand.  She continues to do this until it gets to a point where he says I have nothing left.  End of relationship – it terminates, right at that point.  He’s lost everything.  Not only did he lose his life savings, but he also is in debt.  He’s 55 years old and he has no recourse.  This is the type of scenario that we’re dealing with.  I know of a banker and an accountant that lost everything.  They were going to retire. They were going to do this because they thought they would have more for retirement and now they have to go back to work and they have to pay back a couple of hundred thousand US dollars to friends and family and so forth.  Terrible situation on the scam side, but, let me just go back to the victimisation.  I’ve been working on addressing human trafficking for 32 years.  I spent 20 years focussing on addressing sex trafficking in raids and rescues and all that.  But I’ve never seen violence like I’m seeing now.  If you do not meet your target, they take a bat, and they hit you over and over again.  They take a taser and taser you.  They’ll put in a cage outside in the rain.  They’ll do things to these people that we haven’t seen in hundreds and hundreds of years related to slave trades.  In fact, on telegram you can see these torture videos and then they say that if you really want the good ones, where the person was killed, send us some of your crypto coins and we’ll send you the link to it.  So they’ve created what is called ‘harm-core’ which is a new form of voyeuristic violence where people can pay to see snare films.  The victims of those snare films are people who have been trafficked into the scam centres who can’t perform because they are so traumatised by their experience so they just bring them out, kill them, take the videos and then sell those.  It is a completely different set of scenarios related to human trafficking.  I had never seen anything like this – it’s new, it’s in the last couple of years, it’s deeply, deeply disturbing. 

PS:  It is disturbing – I’m blown away.  I never thought of scamming as connected to human trafficking, I always thought it’s people who want to scam people – it’s their choice.  Now I realise that some of these people are victims and it brings a little bit of compassion.  Instead of judging the person behind the computer, you realise they could be a puppet.  They could be a victim.  They could be trafficked.  Thank you for sharing that.  So I ask – what can we do?  What are some of the systems that the listeners can put in place to be more aware so they don’t become victims.

MF:  The first thing is, when it comes to anything that comes through social media or text messages or emails from people you don’t know, immediately feel suspicious related to that.  You should not trust what’s out there because there are all these people trying to use and abuse you to get your identity, to get your money, basically to trick you into things.  So, if something sounds too good to be true – that wonderful job, and they’re going to pay you all this money, and all of a sudden you’re the person they’re reaching out to, then you should be very suspicious of that.  What you need to do is really check things out, to verify it.  Like, for instance, when that person you were talking about got that text message and was going to go to the airport, he cross-checked it with you, and you basically said, no no – this is a scam.  You do need to verify everything that’s out there.  Don’t share any personal information; don’t trust anything that comes from some random source; even if something sounds very innocent, it’s probably some kind of a scam-related activity.  If all of a sudden a young woman, for what ever reason, reaches out to a guy, and all of a sudden develops some kind of relationship, – that’s not the normal way things happen.  So the person may feel – well there is something great about me that she’s attracted to and so forth, – but that’s just not the way the world works.  So, understanding that in this day and age we don’t really know what’s real or not real is an extremely important part of the process.  The other thing is, educate yourself about this crime.  Al Jazeera put out a great 40-minute video that talks about this, and it’s probably the best summation.  – So it’s Al Jazeera – if you google Al Jazeera human trafficking and scams, you see this video and it gives you the visuals, it walks you through, it talks about the situation and everything else.  Seeing that video will give you or your listeners a perspective of what it is we’re talking about.  How does it work; who are the criminals; why are they doing it.  All these types of things.  Educating yourself is an extremely important part of the process.

PS:  A question I would like to ask you is do you work with the government, do you work with the police and law enforcement on educating them and making them be aware of situations like this, so that if we report them, it is taken seriously – they don’t just think it is a ‘hollywood film’ and that it does not exist.

MF:  We do have conversations with people who are within the legal system or within the financial systems – they’re well aware of the fact that these scams exist.  They’re also aware of the fact that human trafficking takes place.  But the bigger concern here, and this is the red flag and the point that I really want to get across, is that this particular criminal activity started in a few south east Asian countries but now it’s disseminating to other places.  So it used to be in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.  Now we’re seeing it in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Dubai.  We’ve heard that there are a couple of African countries that have this.  When criminal networks identify that you can human traffic a person into a scam centre – all you need is to have the tech and know how to do it, then all of a sudden you see there’s proliferation.  But as it relates to politicians and to the police, – because the money generated is so extreme, they can buy people off so that they look the other way.  What we’re seeing in some of these south east Asian countries is they had momentum in addressing human rights and rule of law and so forth but now they’re going backwards because the amount of money that people are getting through these bribes is reversing those positive trends that we had.  Imagine a world that has these enclaves where a tremendous amount of money is generated and that money is used to insulate that business and as a result of that, no-one is going to touch them.  So more and more and more people get scammed and more and more creative ways of scamming takes place until you eventually get to a point where you don’t know what’s real any more.

PS:  So, the more the scammers have power – they have power, they have money – they can bribe anybody, they can keep anybody quiet, even within the government or the NGOs that are maybe working with victims of being scammed or human trafficking – people like this, once they have the money, they can control anybody who can possibly challenge their system.  I’m grateful there are people like you who have been doing this for years.  This has been educational for me.  Is there anything – after this show – where maybe we can go online, where there’s a website or if there are contact details we can go to after this to educate ourselves more.  You mentioned Al Jazeera.  Are there any contact details, or any other sources we can look into.

MF:  We are in the process of setting up a website repository that will have all kinds of information related to how to prevent yourself from being scammed, how to prevent yourself from being trafficked into a scam centre: videos, e-learning.  It will be in multiple languages over time.  We’re also in the process of developing some public service announcements related to this topic.  We could use a lot of prayer. In this as well, just to help with the victims and the people who are losing their money and everything else – all of these things are relevant and important as part of this particular work.

PS:  Do you have any advice to our listeners about our scammers and our human trafficking.

MF:  I think that it we will provide you with regular updates so that as we see things happening in Africa and Latin America and North America and so forth, we can sensitise people to the fact that these trends are taking place in order to create an idea of what needs to be done in order to prevent these types of things.  I guess the recommendation I would say to you is to do exactly what you’re doing with every aspect of human trafficking: getting the up to date information; hearing from the victims; hearing from people who are working within NGOs, or faith-based groups, or whatever, and staying on top of this and making sure your listeners have access to that information.  Because, when it comes to this particular topic, the cutting edge changes every other week because there’s new information and there’s new victimisation and there’s new approaches and so forth.  Helping people to understand the rate at which these changes are taking place helps to prevent people from finding themselves in those circumstances.

PS:  This has been a pleasure and so educational – I’m so aware right now, but need to do homework on this and also to share the information to people close to me.  I get a lot of junk mail on social media, and sometimes I’m tempted, but I think I do need to delete them and not engage – because once I engage, I could be trapped.  Thank you so much for your time and for engaging with us on this complex and difficult topic.  Also, I pray for your team and for your website.  Maybe one day you would have an app so we can know if the information we’re getting on our phones or emails is legit or not.  I pray your ministry grows and that more people will be educated.  Thank you for sharing with us.

MF:  Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.


Ending: Dear friends and key stakeholders, thank you for joining us on today’s podcast. Our aim and heart for these podcasts are to bring awareness on human trafficking. To highlight the atrocity this crime is to humanity. A reminder that human trafficking is a multi- billion Dollar industry, which is sadly the fastest growing worldwide and second biggest crime after drugs. It is far more organized than many care to believe.

Our aim of the podcasts is to bring clarity and understanding of what exactly what human trafficking is and how it impacts victims, survivors. We hope to highlight the roles of various stakeholders and how we can all be part of the solution and bringing an end to what we know as modern-day slavery.

We invite you to join hands in fighting against human trafficking, follow us on our social media pages: on Instagram and on Face Book, Do check our website out and sign up to be a volunteer or donate towards the building and running of our safe house for children who have come out of human trafficking. All details will be put in the link below or our last slide.

For those of you who do not know, Free To Fly, are an organization that is currently starting up one of the first safe houses for children who have been rescued from human trafficking in South Africa. We will be offering a home that will provide a space to heal, recover and be set up to be free to fly. Please follow our journey on our website.

Till next time, take care and be sure to share and listen out for the next podcast. Thanks friends!


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