CYBERCRIMESoutheast Asian Casinos Emerge as Major Enablers of Global Cybercrime

By Cezary Podkul

Published 10 October 2023

A growing number of casinos in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are engaging in large-scale money laundering, facilitating cyberfraud that is costing victims in America and abroad billions of dollars, according to new research by the United Nations.

Mr. Big had a problem. He needed to move what he called “fraud funds” back to China, but a crackdown was making that difficult. So in August, Mr. Big, who, needless to say, did not list his real name, posted an ad on a Telegram channel. He sought a “group of smuggling teams” to, as he put it, “complete the final conversion” of the stolen money by smuggling gold and precious stones from Myanmar into southern China, in exchange for a 10% cut.

It’s unclear whether Mr. Big ultimately succeeded; his ad has since been deleted, and ProPublica was unable to reach him. But the online forum where he posted his ad says a lot about why Americans and people around the world have found themselves targeted by an unprecedented wave of fraud originating out of Southeast Asia, whose vast scale is now becoming apparent. In a single recent criminal investigation, Singapore police seized more than $2 billion in money laundered from a syndicate with alleged ties to organized crime, including “scams and online gambling.”

The Telegram channel that featured Mr. Big’s plea for assistance was a Chinese-language forum offering access to “white capital” — money that has been laundered — “guaranteed” by a casino operator in Myanmar, Fully Light Group, that purports to ensure that deals struck on the forum go through. Fully Light also operates its own Telegram channels that advertise similar services. One such channel, with 117,000 participants, featured offers to swap cryptocurrency for “pure white” Chinese renminbi or “white capital” Singaporean dollars. (Telegram took down that channel after ProPublica inquired about it. Fully Light did not respond to requests for comment.)

The presence of a casino in facilitating such deals is no coincidence. A growing number of gambling operations across Southeast Asia have become key pillars in a vast underground banking system serving organized criminal groups, according to new research by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The research has not been published, but the agency shared its findings with ProPublica.