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

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 II 


Did you learn anything from working in the scam centers?  

Online is just fake.  Make sure you don’t talk to the people you don’t know.  Even me – I’m getting calls from numbers who are strange, and whenever I see this, it’s guys like me, you know.  Avoid that.  What the hell, they’re scamming on a scammer!  This world.  

Life at scam centers is subject to sudden and unpredictable changes, as localized political forces once seen as favorable turn hostile.  This holds true for what we know of those operating along the border regions of Myanmar-Thailand, and has been David’s experience further afield in Dubai.  

I don’t know all the information – everything happened last minute. The length of how long a “project” would last depended on whether enough money had been made. So one day the manager told us, “Hey we’re going to shut this one down, would you like to work at the other Project Centre?” 

The very next day David and his friends were on their way to another scam centre, in a different part of the Emirates, directly opposite a 4-star private beach resort.   

This was a huge one – there were a lot of rooms, and they had a canteen with Chinese food.  We got three meals per day.  You sit at the table and because there is no official break, you eat while chatting, and if you want to smoke, you smoke at the chair where you work – so basically it’s like a hell for the non-smokers – Chinese people really smoke like crazy.  

We were in a residential area, with two buildings.  You sleep in one, and in the other one right across the street, the Chinese Burmese guys will take you with their pass, past the security and down the stairs, and that was where we worked.

From 2pm – 2am – I worked like 12 hours per day.  There was only one day off in the month.  The first time I tried to organize leave to go outside the compound it was denied because they couldn’t spare a guy at that time to follow along behind me wherever I went.  

But later on, because the supervisors were Burmese, this was an advantage for us –  it was possible for me to get out and into the city, to pick up internet cards or to send money back home.  

We couldn’t use a regular taxi – but one was organized, like a friendly driver was supplied by the Chinese Burmese guys – we weren’t allowed to use apps like Grab because it could reveal our location.  The driver already knew that there were no questions asked, so it was smooth.  

Sometimes, if we couldn’t get out, a friend could come and meet us and take the money that we wanted to send back home with KPay. 

One good thing was that we were getting 1000 dirham more than everyone else, because we were Burmese.  At least, that’s what we were told.

Labour laws in Dubai stipulate that confiscating the passports of employees and racial discrimination are illegal.  However, the gaps between law and enforcement have been quite encouraging to operators across a variety of industries, from scamming to construction to hotels and hospitality.  Having no one to advocate for them on an official level often leaves people from Myanmar who are trying to survive completely in the dark, dependent solely upon supports from within their community, and word of mouth.  

So would you say it was one of the rare occasions in Dubai where being Burmese was somehow positive?

Let’s go with that, because all these guys in charge were Myanmar. 

That’s different to the discrimination you’ve mentioned from other fields of work there in the UAE. 

Oh yeah – if you’re like Burmese, in my experience, if there’s a Burmese person who’s supervising this place, you’re special.  Like the place I work now, I’m the only Burmese person, and I get picked on all the time, while the others are racially privileged instead.  

Visa extensions were included in the “package”, which was 500AED (USD 136) per month as salary, with an additional 100AED commission per successfully-scammed-victim as a bonus.  In David’s experience, most employees at his level worked for three to four months.

People would come and go, and you would never know how many were actually living in the building at any one time – there were so many floors, like eight, and so many people in each room.  Maybe 500-1000, maybe more, but you’re not allowed to go anywhere else.  Straight after work, you have to go back to where you sleep.  There were more than 10 buildings in total, with maybe 300 or 400 rooms in each.  

David estimates there were 300 people sharing his floor, predominantly African men with a handful of Chinese ones.  Their supervisor was Indian-Burmese.  David’s description of life at the compound is in fairly stark contrast to the testimonials of people held against their wills in the borderlands of Myanmar.  

There were some different benefits – like there was a playground where you can play music, or there was a basketball gym, not a fancy one, people just hanging out there, with some weights you could lift, or run around, and for me, it’s like my friend just bought a guitar from Dubai – it cost him about 400AED (USD 109), so after work at 2am we would just go down to the playground and drink, there were some guys selling beers in the building, but we didn’t really need to go through them, we would just order a box of beer, because this guy – the Burmese Chinese guy that got us into the work, he knew some people.  Starting from the first few weeks we didn’t really know anything but this guy helped us out and got us the beers.  

We were friends with the other guys in charge.  They were from Indonesia, and didn’t have names – they all called themselves by numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4.  Number 4 was really nice – he was a good guy, and he treated us sometimes, taking us to the restaurant, getting us beer, and he would talk about how he wanted to get to Australia to work on a farm.

I got a lot of pressure from this Shan-Chinese guy from Lashio who would shout sometimes for us to reach our targets.  “Hey!  Why are you guys smoking?” or, “Hey! You are going to the toilet too much!” – it was often like that.  He gives you a lot of pressure, like if you don’t hit the target you’ll go home.  

It made a lot of us really angry, the way he treated us.    

You previously mentioned a lonely guy that you really liked? 

He was African, and he didn’t seem to like other people.  Maybe it’s because of his job – he wasn’t happy here, and he felt alone. I never talked to him personally.  When you’re from Myanmar, and you meet Africans, you feel intimidated, because you know, the language – their English is wayyy so much better than you.  There was one guy from Cameroon, who was an expert at scamming.  In the room, he was the top guy.  Basically he would scam about 10-15 people per month.  Me, I did the bare minimum.  So they say like 4 guys, at least in a month, that’s the limit.  But if you reach 3, it’s not a problem, it’s enough for them.  

Did you hear about the Vietnamese man in Myanmar who was rescued by Blue Dragon Foundation, and they took his kidney because he didn’t meet quota? 

Not really, but I heard some different stories like in Myawaddy [criminal hub in Kayah state at the Thai-Myanmar border], they have a different scamming centre, but some of these guys from Myanmar have been working there, so they ask you to scam on the people, and if you don’t get at least 2 or 3 guys, they beat you, they lock you up, and give you a really hard time.  I didn’t see it in person, but that’s the information I heard from guys here that have worked there, and they’re scarred by that, really.  

I never heard about that happening in Dubai, though, here they’ll just kick you out.  There are so many English speakers here, that walk through their doors voluntarily.    

Consistent with previous structural instability, David and his colleagues at the second scamming centre were alerted to the centre’s closure just moments before it was to go into effect.  No explanation was offered.  

They had officially announced “Hey, we will close this company, this our last night”.  It all happened very fast.  We were all working at the time, and were told suddenly that the centre would be closing.  Then everyone got nervous – like whoaaa they had our passport and our salaries, you know?  Even in the first place, we didn’t really trust that these guys were extending our visas when they said they were. Me and my friend always insisted on doing it ourselves.  

We were all in the office, most of the workers African, and the guys in charge Chinese, who had no English skills. The Indonesian management were the ones who needed to communicate between the two groups, and they were really stressed out.    

So it was very confusing with the translation going back and forth. It was lucky for me to be connected to the Indonesians.  We were all hanging out in front of the room, chatting nervously, trying to keep an eye on the Indonesians, to make sure they weren’t going to run away.  

The Africans were shouting, trying to get their passports back – they were really insecure because the communication was terrible. Everyone in the team was really serious. It was like hell, because when you don’t have your passport, you can’t do anything. There were rumours that we were being sold to another company for 500 AED (USD 136) each.  

None of us slept that night because we were so nervous, whilst some people were running around the whole evening stressing out.  No one was really sure whether or not to properly riot or wait it out, because the communication was so bad.  

I was feeling pretty alone, because most of my friends had COVID and were in isolation at the time.  They were also freaking out because they couldn’t move, and didn’t understand what was going on at all.  

Then there was a kind of clearance the next morning.  It took four to five hours of shouting back and forth before people finally got their passports and payments.  

When the chaos happened on the last night, this one guy still went for it and tried to steal the phone with his customers on it.  He managed it too, actually – he was still using it to deal from the platform even after we all escaped.  

It was absolutely crazy, finally, I just felt safe again when I got my passport back!!  This was the best part, it made me feel like, I’ve been counting everyday for this day to come.

It made me feel like I just got out of a place where I really didn’t belong!!

*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.