Investigations

Scammer Reveals All: Inside an international phone scam operation

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“We want to make big money in one hit... My record was around $200,000 in one day”.

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He needed money, and his friend knew someone who knew someone. That’s how Ah Wei* got started in the phone scam business – first as a runner collecting victim’s money from ATMs, then as a phone operator and manager of a call centre in Taiwan. He says he’s also recruited and trained others in the psychology of scamming.

“Usually, we play on people’s anxieties and fears,” he told SBS Viceland’s The Feed. “And we keep them on the phone and don’t give them time to think”.

Mandarin speakers in Australia have recently been targeted in an elaborate phone scam - police say victims have paid more than $9 million. The caller says they’re from DHL or the Chinese consulate, and then transfers the phone to a person pretending to be from the police or Interpol.

If you’re dealing with a daughter, you arrange to have a woman in the background screaming ‘mum, help me'.

It’s a lucrative trade. One Chinese student in Australia, Xiao Chen*, told The Feed that she handed over nearly $500,000 during a 10 day-long ordeal.

Ah Wei is familiar with this kind of set-up.

“I’ll call and say you’ve been implicated in a criminal case, we have a subpoena and you have to appear at court to explain. But you have to pay a security bond, to ensure you don’t flee the country.”

Another, that’s recently been seen in Australia, targets parents. According to Ah Wei, they’re told their son or daughter has been kidnapped or will be harmed unless the parents pay some money.

“If you’re dealing with a daughter, you arrange to have a woman in the background screaming ‘mum, help me...’. (The parents) will think their daughter is being hit.”

I’ll call and say you’ve been implicated in a criminal case, we have a subpoena and you have to appear at court to explain.

The scams are often run from rented villas that are set-up solely for the purpose of making the calls.

Ah Wei says phone operators are recruited by word-of-mouth and recruitment ads. The workers are trained and given scripts, and a list of phone numbers and personal information. They’re not allowed to leave the house while the scam operation is underway - this could be anywhere from one to three months.

“A lot of people hear how much they can earn, and even though they know it’s a scam, they’ll still do it,” according to Ah Wei.

Phone scams originating in Taiwan date back to the late 1990s. They’ve since evolved, and syndicates have branched out overseas. Some call centres have even been located in Australia.

Ah Wei says he’s now out of the game because he began to understand just who he was taking money from.

“One time I came across a little old lady at the bank who’d been scammed out of $27,000. Her children were standing there abusing her. I thought, what if that money was part of what I’d taken that day? What if my mother was scammed?”

Ah Wei now wants to give advice to people who suspect there’s a scammer on the other end of the line.

“Take the time to think it over with a cool-head. Don’t just believe what a stranger on the phone says.”

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.