From Yangon to Dubai, David’s Odyssey Into The Cyber Romance Scam World (I)

By Shwe Nakamwe 

David* worked in a scam center in Dubai, targeting European men. His team posed as women on social media, luring targets into investing in fake platforms with promises of love and affection. His experience, a lifeline after fleeing Myanmar’s turmoil post-coup, sheds light on the dark underbelly of migrant exploitation and online scams prevalent in Southeast Asian borders but also in Dubai’s shadowy job market.

Episode I 

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) 

“So were you getting d*** pics very often then?”

Oh yes, all the time, David* chuckles.  I always made sure to save them so that I would have a catalogue from which to choose a bigger d*** to send back in response.  

This was a much-needed moment of mirth amid an otherwise difficult and depressing conversation.  We’re discussing David’s recent experiences working at one of the scam centres on the outskirts of Dubai.  

After having fled Myanmar during the violence and confusion that followed the February 1st coup in 2021, it took some time for David to find his feet in Dubai.  Here was a world unknown, creating competition along often racialized lines among disenfranchised workers of the developing world.  The underpaid and exploitative job market here did not concern itself with fairness, or with nurturing those who had escaped conflict back to wellness again.  

David had applied for a worker’s passport in Yangon, before the passport offices temporarily closed, and then re-opened surrounded by palisades and armed menace.  Upon receipt, he’d made contact with “a friend-of-a-friend” – someone on the other side of the world, who he’d never met, who assured David that he could bunk down at his place in Dubai, and that together they’d look for a job.  

David boarded the plane with two acquaintances from his former job in Myanmar, and together they met the anonymous man who had promised this lifeline.  Luckily, the man was genuine, and the three now had somewhere to live while they assessed employment prospects.

After selling off the clothing, bras, and other items they’d lugged with them in heavy suitcases across the world and defended from intensive questioning by the Emirati border force, their luck was dwindling.  It became a full-time occupation for David to make sure he didn’t run afoul of Emirati migration laws, as visa after visa needed extending or replacing throughout the nearly year-long process it took to find work.  

Finally, down to their last collective 100 dirhams (USD 27), David and his mates turned in desperation to another friend back home in Myanmar – a Chinese-Burmese guy who they knew to be well-connected.  

Everything was organized in Myanmar, with people in Shan state.  Before we went to the job, they asked about typing skills and speed, and then told us to practice for a week before the interview.  You had to be able to speak English well, and Chinese was a bonus, as was Burmese.  

A week later, an unregistered taxi drove them about an hour into the desert before turning off the highway into a small cul-de-sac sparsely dotted with apartment complexes and perennial desert grasses.  A Chinese-Burmese security guy came out to swipe them in.    

He was from the same part of Myanmar as me.  He took our passports and told me and my friends that he would keep them for us until we were ready to leave.  One of the reasons they kept passports was to prevent people from escaping.  Nothing happened while I was there, and I only heard one story but apparently some guy tried to escape at some point with company equipment that could have had sensitive information on it.  

The three friends were assigned to work in team of about thirty-five people.  They joined the other typists, about fifteen men from Africa.  A Chinese group of about ten directed finances and organizational matters, in addition to whom were three supervisors from Shan state in Myanmar.  

The business is run by the Chinese, and some of them don’t speak any language other than Chinese.  But some employees speak all three – Chinese, Burmese and English – these guys are from Shan state – and they report directly to the manager.  

The guys at the top tell you it’s a customer service job, but ten days in, I realized there was something wrong, and this was not a good job at all.  Then I called my best friend but had real difficulty talking to her about what I was doing, because I wasn’t proud of myself at all.  This time of year especially was really hard to find work – the tourist season had ended and people were gearing up for Ramadan, so there’s limited work in hospitality and tourism, and the job market gets even more competitive than usual.  

David’s team was assigned the name of a well-known electronics retailer, Jupiter*, and “typists” were issued fake Facebook and Tinder profiles on which to meet men.  The Jupiter team had additional assistance from a specialized team dedicated to finding potential targets online.  

You meet a guy – you are a woman, a random woman online – just trying to get people into the platform, with our supervisor telling us, “Make these guys fall in love with you”.  

I wasn’t really comfortable with it, but that’s what the supervisor wants – these guys fall in love, and then you can control them very easily.  There are a lot of different strategies – I would need to find out where the guy is from and then madly google the town, the monuments and the special stuff like that, and say “Oh yes, I’ve visited there once”, or “I am there, not far around the corner, when are you going to come and visit me?”.  

This identity of being a scamming guy from the internet, pretending to be a fancy woman, it’s just crazy.  You make these guys like you – some of them fall in love – and you make a business out of it.  

David pauses, a bit like he can’t believe it himself, before elaborating.  

You really have to give some time, like 2-3 weeks, then you’re safe.  You have to make sure you’re chatting for at least that length of time, flirting, you know?  
Once contact has been established, you try to take the conversation over to WhatsApp, “I’ll give you my number, Facebook is very unsafe,” etc, etc.  

In David’s compound, there were two “models” assigned to work with different teams.  One woman came from Ukraine, and the other, Myanmar.  

Sometimes the guys would try to verify that we’re real, and they would ask to do a video chat.  So basically you then run off to see the model, stand in the line if it’s busy, and then see when she’s available.  Then you take the phone, talk to the guy again, “In thirty minutes?  I’m eating now.” 

And then you would give the model a briefing about what has been talked about so far, and she would do her job.  
We weren’t allowed to talk to the models about personal matters – there was a 100,000 dirham (USD 27 230) fine if we were caught.  But one of the supervisors gave me a model’s number and I would sometimes talk to her.  She would often mess things up with customers because her English wasn’t very good.  I tried to help her a bit with that.  

Men located online were invited to invest in platforms masquerading as well-known electronics companies.  They would initially pay US$30 via Binance or OKX to gain access to the platform under false pretence, and in so doing, their account details, security codes and passwords would be logged in an app that would then store the person’s private details. This phenomenon is known as ‘pig-butchering’ (from sha zhu pan in Chinese) in the spirit of fattening up a pig before the slaughter. 

There was an app like a poker machine that you spin thirty times and you encourage the customer to get online and use it to promote the company, but it will cost the customer money to do this.  There are different apps for this but the one I worked on first advertised electronics products like microphones, speakers, phones, and you tell the guys that by spinning the poker machine they promote the platform.  There are guys working behind it, controlling the app and the money.  

Then we would hand it over to the supervisor, and he would tell the guy to promote the platform by getting his friends to join.  Once you get these guys in, that’s where my job stops.  I’m not sure what they do with these guys after this – there’s a big secret behind this – I don’t really know what they do.  

The primary targets of the scamming centres that David worked at in the UAE were European males.  There was a notion that Americans were too tricky an audience, possessing too many online smarts.  Despite having so many Chinese speakers involved in the scams, David says he has never encountered any operations that actually targeted Chinese people.  The apps being used automatically translate typed Chinese into English for the targets to read.  

If you see Americans online, you just have to block that, like if you see a +1 (USA calling phone code), you just get outta there.  But, I did chat with some American guys just for fun, rapping, and rhyming, just talking about music.  

Most of my favourites were musicians, and whenever I saw them online I asked them to play stuff.  I met a guy from Greece who was playing violin in an orchestra.  He would play My Heart Will Go On for me on the violin.  It was really beautiful.  

‘Did you get him onto the app?’ 


*Name has been changed for safety reasons

A project supported by the 'Staying Resilient Amidst Multiple Crises in Southeast Asia initiative' of SEA Junction in partnership with CMB Foundation.