UAE cracks down on cybercrime: Inside world where scammers got fined for not meeting targets

From doing 13-hour shifts to making 800 calls a day, exploited employees said they 'did not see the sky for weeks'


Mazhar Farooqui

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Reuters file photo used for illustrative purposes
Reuters file photo used for illustrative purposes

Published: Fri 5 Jul 2024, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Sun 7 Jul 2024, 6:24 PM

A three-month-long investigation by Khaleej Times has revealed the complex structure of international cybercrime syndicates dismantled by UAE authorities, resulting in the arrests of hundreds of individuals last week.

The syndicates had specialised teams for different scams, employing hundreds of computer-literate individuals from South Asia through job advertisements on social media.


Job advertisements discovered by Khaleej Times show recruits were required to have a minimum typing speed of 25 words per minute and their own visa. The advertised salaries ranged from Dh2,500 to Dh3,000, with additional incentives of Dh500 for meeting KPIs, commissions, and other benefits. The job offers also included meals and accommodation.

Training and deployment

Once in the UAE, the recruits were trained and deployed into four main categories based on their skills:

1. Receptionists

Receptionists or beginners handled task-based scams, which required them to send messages from overseas WhatsApp numbers, pretending to be company representatives, and offering recipients the opportunity to earn a daily income working from home. They also managed parcel and package delivery scams, known as 'smishing'. These targeted customers with texts impersonating trusted organisations like Emirates Post. The messages often contained links to fraudulent websites that mimicked legitimate sites, asking victims to enter personal and financial information.

2. Developers

Developers coaxed people into joining WhatsApp groups or Telegram channels with promises of online trading tips. They tricked people into installing specific trading applications, registering, and starting stock trading based on the fraudsters' recommendations.

Fake profits were displayed in the digital wallet. When people tried to withdraw their 'profit,' they were told they needed to reach a certain amount before withdrawing. Trusting this as company policy, victims continued to invest based on the fraudsters' instructions.

3. Teachers

Teachers managed pig butchering or romance scams using social media, dating apps, WhatsApp, and text messages to make contact. They often start by pretending to have made a mistake and continue talking even after being corrected. Over time, they build trust and 'fatten up' victims to invest in cryptocurrency trading, offering insider tips. They guide victims to download an app or visit a website, which the scammers secretly control.

4. Killers

At the top end of the hierarchy were 'Killers'. They contacted people, accused them of illegal activity, and then posed as police officers in video calls to enforce fake 'digital arrests'. Dressed in police uniforms, they demanded money to close the cases, often using threats to ensure compliance. Killers also lured victims with instant loan apps that harvested personal data for extortion.

An Asian woman who worked at a cyber compound before quitting earlier this year described living in cramped accommodation with seven other girls and facing strict rules and fines for not starting work on time, taking extended breaks, or failing to meet targets.

"It was a 12-story building. We lived on the seventh floor, while our workstation was on the ninth. It felt like a jail with guards monitoring the exits. My passport was confiscated, and my phone was kept by my employers from 7.30am to 8.30pm," she said.

During this time, she impersonated a representative from a purported Mumbai-based company that dealt in cryptocurrency.

"Nobody was allowed to step out of the building. Our meals were served in the call centre. Breakfast was just bread with tea. Sometimes, if the scams did well, they'd toss in some butter. Lunch was at noon, and dinner at 5pm. It was usually watery dal, khubus, noodles, hummus, and salad."

She described her schedule: hunched behind computers for 13-hour shifts, for 30 days straight.

"I didn't see the sky for weeks. Every day, each of us made between 700-800 calls, all of which were recorded, with many randomly monitored by our handlers," she explained. "The moment I finished one call, another appeared on the dialer."

The emotional toll of her work was significant. "There were all kinds of victims, from retirees to young individuals starting their careers. Cheating them weighed heavily on my conscience, leaving me unable to sleep."

Khaleej Times reached out to four such victims in East Asia. Each confessed to losing anywhere between Dh5,000 and Dh50,000.

The woman said her employers offered to promote her to 'Developer' when she tried to quit, but she refused. "They released me after heavily docking my salary for computer usage and fining me for not giving a thumbs-up emoji on the screen every time their centre made Dh1 million in a day, which was quite often."

Another woman recounted how pre-recorded applause and cheers echoed through the room each time they netted a big fish. “Congratulations to Vijay customer for making a single deposit of 500,000 (yuan) [approximately Dh252,600], applause,” read a message from the admin of an internal messaging service. It had 42 likes and 3 claps.

She shared another message to describe the intense pressure from the management: "Guys, adjust to your best condition. I understand that everyone had a hard time moving yesterday and everyone is very tired. If everyone can give me a satisfactory report today, then everyone’s overtime will be cancelled today. Everyone can go back early to rest and work hard towards your respective goals."

There were also threatening messages. “No one is allowed to share any information with anyone outside this team without my permission. Violators will be fined Dh1,000.”

Employees were ordered to make the most use of customers' personal details. "Our handlers always reminded us how much money they paid for buying the data and how we should maximise its use. "Anyone, in any position, do not neglect your customers or waste company resources. You are here to make money, not for vacation," warned another post by the group admin. "Every customer is hard-won and if anyone is found wasting or neglecting customers, they would be fired without pay," it added.

“I will fire you without pay. Don’t give me any excuses. I watch your abilities and your attitude every day,” warned the admin.

Meeting these women was challenging, as they needed an exit pass to leave their building, which was only granted after meeting a daily quota of 12 clients. Khaleej Times managed to interview some of them late at night, after they had fulfilled their quota. In March, we met one of these women, "I want to escape, but my passport is held by by employers," she said. "I'm also concerned for my roommates; if I don't return, they will be targeted."

Several cyber compounds were raided in a massive all-night crackdown last Wednesday. Investigations into the roles of those detained are ongoing, and those involved will be referred to the public prosecutor.


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