A shocking tale of human trafficking has been revealed by the UN Human Rights Office, which has revealed that hundreds of thousands of people are being forcibly engaged in online criminality in Southeast Asia.

Organised criminal gangs are forcing people into working in digital crime, including romance investment scams, crypto fraud, and illegal gambling.

The victims face a range of serious violations and abuses, including threats to their safety and security, according to the report, Online Scams Operations and Trafficking Into Forced Criminality in SouthEast Asia: Recommendations for a Human Response.

It reveals that many trafficked into online criminality have also been subject to torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment, arbitrary detention, sexual violence, forced labour and a range of other human rights abuses.

“People who are coerced into working in these scamming operations endure inhumane treatment while being forced to carry out crimes. They are victims. They are not criminals,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk.

“In continuing to call for justice for those who have been defrauded through online criminality, we must not forget that this complex phenomenon has two sets of victims.”

The report says that the enormity of online scam trafficking in Southeast Asia is difficult to estimate, because of the clandestine nature and gaps in the official response.

Credible sources indicate that at least 120,000 people across Myanmar may be held in situations where they are forced to carry out online scams.

Other states in the region, including the Philippines and Thailand, have also been identified as main countries of destination transit where at least tens of thousands of people have been involved.

Forced trafficking has been rife since the pandemic, while the closure of casinos saw operators move into less regulated spaces, the report says.

Criminals have also targeted migrants in vulnerable situations who have been stranded in these countries and out of work due to border and business closures. And as COVID shutdowns saw millions of people restricted to their homes and spending more time online, the number of potential targets for these frauds ballooned.

While many trafficked into online scam operations are men, women and teens are also among the victims, the report says.

Many being targeted for human trafficking into this area are well-educated, sometimes coming from professional jobs or with graduate degrees.

They are often computer literate and speak more than one language.

While some countries in the Southeast Asian region have put legal and policy frameworks in place to counter human trafficking, in some cases, they fall short of international standards.

And often, the implementation of these frameworks has failed to respond adequately to the context and sophistication of the online scams.

The other concern, according to the report, is that victims of trafficking are erroneously identified as criminals, rather than being protected and given access to the rehabilitation and remedy they need.

Instead, many are subject to criminal prosecution or immigration penalties.

“All affected states need to summon the political will to strengthen human rights and improve governance and the rule of law, including through serious and sustained efforts to tackle corruption.

“This must be as much a part of the response of these scams as a robust criminal justice response,” Türk said.

While ScamWatch is vowing to make it harder for scammers to target Australia, the majority of the work appears to be in educating people about what to look out for in the event of a scam.

This puts the onus on individuals to be aware of scams, rather than financial institutions to do something about it.

So far this year, Australians have reported an eye-watering $328 million lost across 182,593 scam reports.

The majority of these scams are investment scams, which total nearly $200 million, according to ScamWatch.

Phishing, false billing, online shopping scams, identity theft, hacking and classified scams are among the top reported scams this year.

Most scams come via phone, social networking, email, internet, mobile apps or text messages.