Know that feeling when getting a call from a strange number? In Thailand these days it’s rather wariness or annoyance, because the chance of it being from scammers is much higher than someone trying to reach you for genuine business.
Often starting off with a pre-recorded audio, “Hello, you have an unclaimed package,” or “Hello, your number is going to be terminated,” such calls are now so rampant many can identify them as being a scam right off the bat and take it as a form of entertainment. Playing along and messing with phone scammers is the new cool on social media. A TikTok clip of a woman flirting with a phone scammer racked up over 30 million views.
But for several others, these calls are no laughing matter.
A 51-year-old Bangkok resident, Pontip Vidyavrapat, received one of these calls one afternoon in February, and less than three hours later, she had lost nearly 400,000 baht, or about $11,000.
Crimes related to phone and online scams are spiking in Thailand, which has seen hundreds of citizens repatriated after working in scams in neighboring Cambodia. The government and law enforcement are putting up warning campaigns and publicizing crackdown attempts, but preventative measures are lacking, and several still lose a fortune over scam tricks that continue to change. They have to endure not only the justice process that is sluggish with little to no hope to get their money back, but also the negative sentiment from the public.
Since last year, the Thai public has experienced scams so regularly that the issue eventually made it to a Thai Council of Ministers meeting. According to the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council, over 6.4 million scam calls were recorded in 2021, a 270% increase compared to the year before. It said that the cybercrime police last year received over 1,600 complaints related to phone scams, with an overall damage worth over 1 billion baht, or about $27.5 million.
Pontip said her life was turned upside-down by this incident, and it was not only because she lost a huge amount of money.
“I am so humiliated with anyone I talk to, even my own friends and family. … They all look at me differently, like I’m such an idiot,” she told VOD by phone, adding that all scam victims she had come to know also feel similarly stigmatized. “We all are branded as stupid wherever we go, as if we are the one who did the wrong thing.”
Pontip’s first caller was a woman who claimed to be a staff of international courier service DHL, saying her name had been used for sending an illegal package being seized by customs in the northernmost province of Chiang Rai.
“She told me that there was a police officer familiar with such cases who could assist me,” she said. “I could not travel to Chiang Rai because I was busy with work, so I asked her to tell the police to help me.”
Pontip was told to add an account on a messaging application Line, which appeared to use a logo of the Chiang Rai city police station. Shortly after, Pontip was called through the application by a man who claimed to be a police officer there.
“He said I was involved with a man named Somsak Sakdee who was a suspect in a money laundering case,” she said. Through the chat room, she was sent photos of a police ID card and a document that looked like it was issued by law enforcement.
Pontip works for a prominent international organization, and she had visited Chiang Rai for work in the past, so she said she could believe she was a victim of identity theft. She was flustered, and did not question his instructions to transfer money to an account belonging to an individual whose name was on a document she was sent for “checking [her] money trail” and verifying that she wasn’t involved with any money laundering activity.
“He said there were politicians and high-ranking police officers involved in this, so you must give up all information. Everything was top secret. He told me to repeat everything that he said as well, like he was hypnotizing me.”
The man claimed that the secrecy required the police to use an account that didn’t have a visible link to law enforcement. However, she started to feel something was off when he tried to tell her to transfer more money.
“I became suspicious, and he threatened that I would be arrested. … I was like, feel free to arrest me because I don’t have any money left.” After hanging up, she called the Chiang Rai city police station, and was informed that she had been scammed.
Pontip’s story matches descriptions given for a phone scam operation busted in Sihanoukville in March this year. Thai police released images of what appeared to be scripts for callers pretending to be staff of DHL or FedEx and police officers. The name Somsak Sakdee was also used in the scripts. One of the notes said that they “must threaten and fix a crime” on victims.
“I was told not to leave my place and not to talk to anyone, otherwise my family would get into trouble,” Pontip recalled. “He intimidated me into thinking that he had the power, that I must talk to him, that I must believe him, and that I must not tell anyone about this.”
She said she also heard a background noise during the call that made it sound like a police station with several officers working at the time.
Not long after officials issued warnings, the deceptions seemed to evolve as more people learned to avoid such calls. Some even tried to capitalize on recent news and events.
In May, the Digital Ministry and cybercrime police held a joint press conference warning that scammers pretended to be government officials pressuring victims to download applications that would be used for “proving their innocence.” Those applications were actually for screen or desktop sharing, which allow scammers to access all of the victims’ personal information on their devices, and even make transactions from their bank accounts.
A newer scam capitalized on Thai citizens’ demand for insurance plans covering Covid-19 as cases surged this year. Scammers claimed to be from the Office of Insurance Commission and promised they would facilitate insurance claims for victims in exchange for a processing fee, or extort them through a similar claim that they are being investigated for insurance fraud.
The Health Ministry also detected another scam, where perpetrators posed as health officials telling victims that they wanted to learn about the side effects of Covid-19 vaccines in order to try to get their personal information.
Several other agencies — the Office of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, the Criminal Court, insurance companies, telecom providers and commercial banks — say they’ve also been impersonated by different scam operations.
Many have been arrested for scam related crimes, and several organizations have repeatedly issued warnings about phone and online scammers — the government taking it as far as releasing a much ridiculed song, “Don’t Transfer,” about scams on a CD emblazoned with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s stern face — but the calls continue.
The Broadcasting Commission vowed to crack down on scam calls and text messages, announcing some measures such as requiring telecom operators to take reports and block these calls or mark them with a special code. But people continue to post on social media about scam calls they’re receiving every day, suggesting that there’s been no reduction of them by the implementation of these measures.
Digital Economy and Society Minister Chaiwut Thanakamanusorn last month dismissed a crackdown on scammers as “difficult” as Thailand has “freedom in the internet usage.”
According to a survey by Suan Dusit Poll published in February, more than half of respondents had conversations with phone scammers or knew someone who did.
Pontip said phone scam victims like herself have formed a group chat to communicate and help each other. She said there were more than 170 people in the group, and they estimated the loss among themselves as nearly 80 million baht, or $2.1 million.
“I can say that everyone in the group went broke,” she said. “Lately, there were people who took loans in order to pay these scammers. Some people are very poor, and they wanted to kill themselves. I know at least two people who wanted to commit suicide.”
“Because it’s about proving our innocence, we felt the need to declare everything, because we had faith in the police,” she added.
Despite the issue being labeled as Thailand’s “national agenda,” Pontip said she and fellow victims do not feel their cases are being treated as such, saying authorities have not been able to return the full amount of money to any victims she knows.
According to Pontip, the investigation of these cases often proceeds very slowly, and getting the money back has been left “up to luck,” as the funds are often dispersed to multiple accounts.
For Pontip’s case in particular, over five months have passed, and the police successfully made an arrest tracing the trail back to only one account — the one she made the transfer to — but the located account was already empty.
“The police are just totally incompetent, for not being able to get the money back,” she said. “They are sloppy, ignorant and focus too much on things they cannot do. … There is no success at all. There is just no one who has gotten their money back.”
The way the public received Pontip’s story also did not help make anything better for her.
“Sometimes I post about this on social media, and people criticize me for being stupid. They say I look like a smart person, that I went to study abroad, how come I could be so stupid,” she said. “When we come forward, people lash back that we are stupid, so many victims do not want to go public.”
In a YouTube comment section on a news clip about a TV host who lost 1 million baht to scammers, most pin the blame on her. One user wrote: “There is news about this out everyday, how could you still get tricked? I’m embarrassed for you,” Another said: “She must have done something wrong so she paid them, right? If you have not done anything wrong, you wouldn’t believe them no matter how much they threaten you.”
Pontip said phone scam victims experienced similar prejudice even from law enforcement.
“When we go to report the crime, the officers give us such a scorned look,” she said, adding that it makes them feel like the police are not making a full effort to help them. “They often tell us not to get our hopes up, but how can we not?”
In May, a Facebook page of the cybercrime police wrote “the super easy way” the public can protect themselves from phone scammers is to “just hang up,” leading to a storm of criticism about whether the police have any other plan of action to stop these calls.
If the police would take the matter more seriously, Pontip thinks it wouldn’t only benefit scam victims, but would also improve the image of law enforcement and restore faith among the public.
“The police should see that this group of people actually have faith in your institution, because [scammers] claim to be you, and people are ready to give up their money for you,” she said. “You should deal with it to protect your own dignity, because the people have faith in you.”
“At least solve a few cases and return the money, that is better than keep saying that we won’t get anything back,” she added. “Please don’t make us lose all hope. We are now getting hopeless in this country.”