Wed. Jul 17th, 2024

ORGANISED criminal gangs are running catfish scams from sinister ‘factories’ where modern-day slaves and models are forced to trick Brits out of thousands of pounds, a new documentary claims.

Hunting the Catfish Crime Gang, which airs on BBC3 tonight, sees James Blake, whose identity has been stolen countless times in a bid to swindle victims online, travel to Thailand to investigate the people who have been impersonating him.

INSTAGRAM/JAMES BLAKEBusinessman James Blake investigates the catfish scammers for a new documentary after his identity was stolen by criminal gangs[/caption]

These pictures show how scammers have allegedly been beaten and even electrocuted (right) by criminal gangs for failing to hit targets

One fake profile even has more followers than his actual account.

But he is stunned to discover that some of the scammers are victims themselves, forced to dupe people online, and is shown images of horrifying injuries allegedly caused by beatings and even electrocution.

He also visits some of these compounds – at the centre of a multi-billion dollar industry – but is forced to flee when a scammer scout starts taking photos of them. He is warned: “There is nothing stopping anyone from either crossing the river or shooting across the river at us…”

Entrepreneur James, 30, from Belfast, Northern, Ireland, runs his own digital marketing agency and regularly posts images of his luxury lifestyle on Instagram – which scammers then use in order to dupe victims.

He was first alerted to the fact people were impersonating him after a man left a one-star review on his business, claiming he was someone who likes “to f*** around with married women”.

After contacting the man, James discovered his wife was planning to leave him and marry him instead. He then soon started receiving messages from others claiming they had been catfished or conned by someone using his identity.

James makes the trip to South East Asia after being contacted by someone on social media claiming that he worked in a scam compound in Myanmar, where his photo from Instagram was used to “create a specific character to meet some rich girl on dating apps and have a serious relationship building a trust”.

Due to civil unrest in Myanmar, it is not safe to enter the country but in Thailand, he meets Andrew Wasuwongse, from the charity International Justice Mission, which investigates scam compounds.

bbcJames Blake first realised his identity had been stolen when he got an angry message from a man claiming he had had an affair with his wife[/caption]

bbcBusinessman James was inundated with messages from people claiming his identity has been used to scam them[/caption]

He tells James: “People are responding to jobs that are advertised as being in Thailand and they travel here and then they are trafficked through Thailand into, often, Myanmar or Laos.”

Andrew explains that following the military coup in Myanmar in 2021, in border areas “local militias have perhaps signed deals to allow them to do scamming that’s generating a lot of money.”

He claims people are beaten with wooden or metal rods in the centres if they miss scam targets.

Showing James one particularly gruesome photo, he says: “It’s hard to fathom the next image which is showing another victim was electrocuted.”

He adds: “People who have managed to hide a phone have managed to film what’s happening inside secretly at great risk and then published it onto social media to get help.”

‘Prison’ compounds

Andrew also plays a video of someone he says had been trying to escape a compound being carried back.

James says: “I do think the fact that he’s screaming for help shows you how much he wants to leave.

“I would never have thought this is the people who are potentially behind the fake profiles of me and things like that. Seeing the way they are being treated as well is absolutely horrendous.”

James also speaks to a scammer known as Gavesh who spent six months in a compound, describing it as “a prison.”

He says: “We had a timetable. They were controlling everything. We have to work 16 hours and we don’t have enough time to sleep. There were so many rules. If you don’t obey them, they will punish you.”

He adds: “If they kill us inside, no one will know.”

The man says he “was sold three times” to different companies before he managed to escape.

He also speculates why working class James’ identity has been stolen so many times – because it appears he fits the type of profiles he was tasked with finding on Instagram.

BBCJames Blake speaks to former scammer Gavesh who says he was sold three times to different companies[/caption]

Former scammer Gavesh said the compound was like “a prison” and he feared for his life before escapingBBC

The former scammer explains: “Someone who has good selfies, like in every angle, has a good job or someone who is a gentleman type. Someone with pets, someone with money…they wanted profiles with more than hundred photos and the number of followers should be less than 10,000.”

James also heads to Mae Sot, a city in western Thailand that shares a border with Myanmar, to see a compound for himself.

He says in the documentary: “We need to keep a low profile here because we have been warned there are scouts everywhere.”

He adds: “As we passed one of those guys just took off following us.”

James is accompanied by two people who monitor scam compound activity. One of them orders: “No more laps past.”

Getting close to another compound, James points out the high walls and barbed wire surrounding it.

He says: “If you’re in there, there’s no way out.”

Lost £30k to scam

Back in the UK, James speaks to a British woman who lost £30,000, her life savings, after being scammed by someone impersonating him.

He also interviews a man who is currently working as a romance scammer inside a compound in Dubai, run by a criminal gang.

The man, who calls himself Beard to protect his identity, tells how he was conned into the job.

He says they are watched over by guards and can only leave “at certain times” and “only when I have certain access cards.”

He says: “You live here, you eat here, you make your job here, everything is here.”

Beard adds: “At the moment there is only one guard and he is about 50ft away. I’m pretty sure he can’t hear me.

“This time I am taking right now I am supposed to be sleeping so I can make this call because no one else is supposed to be outside.”

Beard says he wanted to move to Dubai “to start a new life” and applied for what he thought was an advertising job.

He says: “When I got to the job, they just sat me on a computer and told me to read a conversation and so when I read it I instantly realised this is a scam.”

Entrepreneur James Blake built his company from scratch and says posting pictures of his lavish lifestyle helps to bring in business – but it comes at a costBBC

BBCJames Blake’s Instagram ticks all the boxes when it comes to scammers looking to steal people’s identities[/caption]

Gangs are said to use real models to pose for photos and video call victims in a bid to dupe thembbc

Explaining how they carry out the scams, Beard adds: “We talk with a victim for a few days in order to know them more. Then, we tell them about the crypto investment.

“We convince them to invest in the crypto currency and then when they actually get convinced we had them over to the Chinese. The Chinese then take control of the chat and keep texting them and telling them to withdraw every single day.”

Beard says “the Chinese” are based “in a room behind our office” at the compound.

He says he “wanted to leave” after finding out what the job was but instead chose to stay to help expose the scammers.

He has risked his own safety to take photos and videos to show exactly what is going on. It reveals the scammers use real models, who live on the compound too, to make occasional calls to victims and to go to certain locations for photographs.

Beard says: “When the victim is like, ok, can I see your face in a video, they just take the phone to the model and she talk with them.

James is clearly affected by making the film and reflecting on the experience, he says at the end: “I feel like my initial thoughts were, ‘oh wow, a documentary, that’s great for me.’ Initially, I thought that’s fantastic for me but very quickly I realised this is not about me.

“This is about so much more than me.”

He adds: “It’s like a pyramid of abuse, right down to the bottom which is the person on the other side of the world giving their life savings away which makes this such a horrific crime.”

Hunting the Catfish Crime Gang is available to stream on BBC iPlayer now and on BBC3 tonight at 9pm

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