by Subir Bhaumik* (from Phnom Penh)

French diplomat Robert Gascoigne (name changed) staying in a riverfront hotel in the Cambodian capital is drawn to a cheap massage parlour 2 minutes walk away. ‘5 US dollars for oil massage (1 hour)’ says the handwritten board. He hangs his bag and clothes and quickly hits the bed in a small air-conditioned room. The petite Khmer masseur offers him an aromatic handkerchief which Robert accepts.

An hour later when the unsuspecting Frenchman is woken up by the masseur with a shrill “massage fini” shout, the Frenchman draws on his wallet and pays the equivalent of 5 US dollars in local currency. Back in his hotel, the Frenchman checks his wallet and finds his 30-odd 100-dollar bills intact. But at the hotel money change counter the next morning, Robert is in for a shock. “ Copy dollar these,” screams the moneychanger .” Not real dollars, copy man.” The word “Copy” is inscribed on the greenback.

The Frenchman, a diplomat who came to attend a UN conference, then realises that his currency notes were changed at that 5-dollar massage parlour, dozens of which dot the Phnom Penh riverfront. As he goes to the local police station to complain, the cops are less than cooperative. “How do we know you have not brought these fake dollars,” says one cop in halting English. His diplomatic passport does not help as the cops are reluctant to register a case. The parlours function under their protection and they get a cut of the loot.

Back in the hotel, as the Frenchman shares his torrid experience over breakfast, a Chinese diplomat attending the same conference shares a similar experience. “I lost 5000 dollars the same way in a similar parlour,” says Li Shaoling (name changed). So a UN conference with dozens of delegates must be a great business for these riverfront parlours, considering the value of the dollar in Cambodia (4052 KHR for one US dollar).

The French and the Chinamen opened up, others might not. The Chinese diplomat said one of his trader friends lost 18000 US dollars from his hotel room safe a week ago though he was too busy to visit parlours on a short business trip and that the replacing of real with “ copy” dollars must have happened in his room safe.

An Indian trader I know was nearly dragged to airport police when he tried to pay a 100-dollar note for his Hennessey cognac at the Phnom Penh airport duty-free and it turned out to be a copy. But he insisted he has had no time to visit massage parlours because of business negotiations – so he suspects the changeover has happened in his hotel room locker in the same riverfront hotel where the French and the Chinese diplomat were staying. “I suspect they have a way of cloning the code I used to lock the room safe,” says the trader.

None are willing to be quoted because this may impact their Cambodian visa in future or they don’t want to publicly admit visiting shady massage parlors looking for cheap sex, which they never get because the aroma handkerchief puts them to sleep. But it is not just counterfeit dollars going around Cambodia. Fake Indian currency is also in circulation, so Indian tourists better be careful.

A Bangladeshi and a British national were sentenced last year to long prison terms by a Cambodian court for counterfeiting Indian currency with a face value of over USD 6,000. “British tourist” Muhamed Suhaei, 51, was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of circulating fake Indian currency and Bangladeshi national Azad Abul Kalam, 32, was given six years as an accomplice to the same charge,” Presiding judge Keo Mony was quoted as saying by The Phnom Penh Post while sentencing the two men.

The two were arrested on December 4, 2013, after carrying an amount of Rs 99,500 (about USD 1,500) in fake Indian currency notes to a money exchange shop in Phnom Penh’s small Prampi Makara district. Tourism is Cambodia’s leading industry and foreign exchange earner, so how can Khmer authorities turn a blind eye to what is a burgeoning currency fraud industry that involves a whole range from the masseurs to their parlour owners to the fake currency handlers to the policemen who turn away complainants, mostly foreign tourists.

Cambodia’s tourism earned gross revenue of $3.04 billion in 2023, up 115 per cent from $1.41 billion in a year earlier, according to a Ministry of Tourism report released on February 12, 2024. The kingdom received 5.45 million international tourists last year, up 140 per cent from 2.27 million in the year before, the report said. “Averagely, a tourist stayed 7.6 days in Cambodia,” the report said.

The Southeast Asian country launched the 2024 Cambodia-China People-to-People Exchange Year last month, hoping that the initiative would be a catalyst for increased tourism and investments. “I’m strongly confident that the initiative will become a new driving force to attract more Chinese tourists and investors to Cambodia,” Cambodian Tourism Minister Sok Soken said at the launching event held in the cultural province of Siem Reap. China was the third largest source of foreign tourists to the kingdom in 2023, the report said, adding that the country welcomed 547,798 Chinese visitors last year, up 412 per cent from only 106,875 in a year earlier.

Cambodia has four world heritage sites, namely the Angkor Archaeological Park in northwest Siem Reap province, the Temple Zone of Sambor Prei Kuk in central Kampong Thom province, and the Temple of Preah Vihear and the Koh Ker archaeological site in northwest Preah Vihear province. Tourism is one of the four pillars of the local economy.

Indian foreign ministry says more than 5,000 Indians are trapped in Cambodia, held against their will and forced to carry out cyber frauds on people back home. The government estimates that the fraudsters have allegedly duped people of at least Rs 5 billion in India over the past six months.

Some Chinese nationals are also there but it is not clear whether they are held against will or are willing accomplices or masterminds of such global cyberfraud operations. Earlier this month, the Indian Home Ministry held a meeting with officials of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (Meity), the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C) and other security experts to draw up a strategy to rescue the Indians trapped in.

“The agenda of their meeting was to discuss the organised racket and bring back those who are trapped there. Data shows that Rs 500 crore has been lost (to cyber fraud originating in Cambodia) in India in the last six months,” a top official said. He said that the investigation by Central agencies has so far revealed that agents were trapping people, mostly those from the southern part of the country, and sending them to Cambodia on the pretext of data entry jobs before forcing them to carry out cyber frauds.

The source said those trapped in Cambodia were forced to scam people back in India and, in some cases, extort money by pretending to be law enforcement officials and saying that they had found some suspicious materials in their parcels. So far, three people from Bengaluru in south India who were trapped in Cambodia have been brought back to India. Rourkela Police in Odisha busted a cyber-crime syndicate on December 30 last year, arresting eight people who were allegedly involved in taking people to Cambodia. That brought the spotlight on this burgeoning racket.

The case was based on the complaint of a senior Central government officer who had been duped of around Rs 70 lakh. “We arrested eight persons from different parts of the country and we have prima facie evidence against multiple people who are involved in the scam. We issued Look Out Circulars against 16 people, following which the Bureau of Immigration this week detained two persons, Harish Kurapati and Naga Venkata Sowjanya Kurapati, at the Hyderabad airport while they were returning from Cambodia,” the officer said.

A rescued youngster Stephen told the ‘Indian Express newspaper: “An agent in Mangaluru offered me a data entry job in Cambodia. I have an ITI degree and did some computer courses during Covid. There were three of us, including someone called Babu Rao from Andhra. At the immigration, the agent mentioned that we were going on a tourist visa, which raised my suspicion. In Cambodia, we were taken to an office space, where they held an interview and the two of us cleared it. They tested our typing speeds etc. It was only later that we got to know that our job involved looking for profiles on Facebook and identifying people who could be scammed. The team was Chinese, but there was a Malaysian who translated their instructions to us in English.”

Talking about his daily schedule, Stephen said, “We had to create fake social media accounts with photographs of women sourced from different platforms. But we were told to be careful while picking these photos. So a South Indian girl’s profile would be used to trap someone in the North so that it did not raise any suspicion. We had targets and if we didn’t meet those, they would not give us food or allow us into our rooms. Finally, after a month and a half, I contacted my family and they took the help of some local politicians to speak to the embassy,” he said.

Odisha police officials say that the accused were agents who took men – potential scamsters – to Cambodia on the pretext of jobs. “But once they land in Cambodia, they are made to join these companies that indulge in fraud. The companies take away the passports of these men and make them work 12 hours a day. If anybody refuses to do the work that is asked of him, he is tortured by way of physical assaults, electric shocks, solitary confinement, etc.

Many Indians who are not willing to engage in such scams are trapped there. We are trying to identify them, contact them and bring them back to India through proper channels,” Padhi said. Talking about the nature of the scam, the officer said the men were initially made to join a “scamming company” in Phnom Penh in April 2023. There, the scamsters were forced to pose as women on dating apps and chat with their potential targets. “After some time, the scamster would convince his target to invest in cryptocurrency trading. This way, many people were duped in India,” Padhi said.

According to the Rourkela Police, in October 2023, the agents got the men to join another company which focused on investment scams. “This company lured people to invest in fake stocks. They also created a fake online app,” the officer said. “We have also gathered critical information regarding the location of the fraud companies, their operatives, their working style and their management hierarchy. We have identified three key high-level operatives of Indian origin and one high-level operative of Nepalese origin. We intend to take the help of Interpol to arrest key players in this scam,” Padhi added.

It is not clear whether these fraudsters are also connected to the fake currency rackets and what kind of local patronage they enjoy. But without such patronage, it would be unlikely they carry on so long and so brazenly. A senior US diplomat in Southeast Asia, when contacted with wads of such fake dollars, said this was a serious matter and would be brought to Washington’s attention soonest.



* Subir Bhaumik, journalist and author, has been the BBC’s North East India correspondent for many years, a senior editor of Myanmar’s leading media group Mizzima and a contributor to the international news channel Al Jazeera. In India, he writes for a wide range of publications

On the cover photo, Aerial view Skyscrapers flying by drone of Phnom Penh city with downtown , riverside and sunset © Nhut Minh Ho/