Taiwan fraud rings move into Southeast Asia

TAIPEI, May 12, 2011 (AFP) - Tears well up in Chen A-hsiu's eyes as she recalls her son's first trip abroad -- to Thailand -- which will also be his last until he finishes a 12-year jail term there for fraud.

Chen said her son, a 25-year-old high-school dropout, was conned by a "friend" into going to Bangkok to unknowingly work for a fraud ring before he was arrested and imprisoned last year.

"They gave him forged ATM cards to withdraw money, and when he felt something was wrong, they threatened him to keep doing it until he was caught," said Chen, who is 50 and ekes out a living as a janitor in Taipei.

The case is seen as part of a trend of Taiwan fraud rings expanding into Southeast Asia as they seek new business opportunities after being driven from China.

China was, until a couple of years ago, a favourite destination for Taiwanese criminals hoping to evade arrest and sometimes start new lucrative careers.

But that changed when Taipei and Beijing signed a crime-fighting agreement in 2009 amid improving ties, and in less than a year more than 1,600 suspected swindlers were rounded up on both sides, according to Taiwanese police.

"Fraud rings now relocate to Southeast Asia," said Tsai Tyan-muh, a criminologist at Taiwan's Central Police University.

"The area is close by and the criminals can spread across several countries, making it less likely they'll get caught."

Arrests of Taiwanese and Chinese nationals have since been reported in Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.

In February, a decision by the Philippine government to deport a group of 24 suspects, including 14 Taiwanese, to China triggered a diplomatic row with Taipei.

"Fraud rings are getting common because they're operating with virtually no cost but can bag huge profits if they succeed," said Tsai.

"They're good at copying (each other's) business models so they come back quickly after each crackdown."

Technological advances have also made it more convenient for fraudsters to operate across borders, as shown in a growing number of scams involving instant messaging, social networking and online bidding sites, police said.

"Fraud rings are going international and have more tools at their disposal. It's getting more difficult to track down the masterminds," said Liang Chuang-ting, an anti-fraud expert at Taiwan's Criminal Investigation Bureau.

In Thailand, where more than 100 Taiwanese and Chinese suspects were detained last year, the police said they are gearing up for "major arrests soon" after collaborating with their Taiwanese and Chinese counterparts.

Kitti Sapaothong, deputy commander of the Royal Thai Police's economic crime unit, said Taiwanese and Chinese gangs arrange their business across borders so they are harder to crack.

"Gangs based in Thailand normally target the people in Taiwan or China or abroad while those targeting Thais are based in Taiwan or China. That's why it's harder for us to arrest them," he said.

Chang Xue-hai has made several visits to Thailand's crowded jails in his capacity as head of the Taiwan Association for Legal Aid, an NGO with a mission to help people in legal trouble.

He estimated that dozens of young Taiwanese are now held in Thai prisons on fraud charges.

"I believe that some were lured to Thailand by false job deals only to become pawns of the fraud rings and were slapped with heavy prison terms up to 20 years," Chang said.

Fraud rings usually pick young people who have never gone abroad, speak no English and are from humble backgrounds like Chen's son so they are more easily manipulated, he said.

Taiwan's foreign ministry, on the other hand, has said many young people arrested in Thailand were aware of the nature of their "job" but fell for the fat salaries and luxury houses promised by fraud rings.

Chen A-hsiu, however, insisted that her son fell victim to a scam.

"He is a simple young man looking for a job but now he will forever have a criminal record. I dare not think how he is going to spend 12 years in a jail abroad," said Chen, who is appealing her son's case.