The $11 billion market is enabling the crypto scam economy

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The public nature of the criminal transactions is even more shocking, as Huion Guarantee is operated by Huion Group, a Cambodian financial group that includes a company linked to the family of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet. In fact, one of the directors of the companies is Hun Toe, a cousin of the prime minister who has been linked in an Al Jazeera investigation to the alleged scam premises, which are allegedly owned by Cambodian group Heng He, owned by two Chinese nationals.

Crypto scam researchers say Huiyan Guarantee, despite its size, is just one of many money laundering methods used by pig butchers. Noting that much of the pig butchering ecosystem has ties to Chinese organized crime, Gary Warner, director of intelligence at cybersecurity firm DarkTower, said revenue from pig butchering is often laundered in a decentralized manner by persuading individual Chinese citizens to accept and hand over cryptocurrencies through their personal Alipay accounts for a small fee. However, marketplaces like Huiyan Guarantee offer a way out for scammers who don’t already have a laundering network they can rely on or who need to diversify their options for liquidating funds.

Screenshot of chat messages and shock caller device

A listing on Huion guaranteeing electrified GPS-tracking shackles to detain scammed enslaved laborers.

Courtesy of Elliptic

It’s perhaps no surprise that Huion Guarantee began operating in 2021, given that crypto scams proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sophos’ Gallagher notes that in Cambodia, pig slaughtering is largely run from hotels and resorts, which have been struggling from a drop in tourism in 2020 and 2021. “They were heavily or entirely financed by Chinese companies in connection with special economic zones and other developments associated with the Belt and Road,” he says. Gallagher’s research indicates that workers who perform pig slaughtering in Cambodia — often against their will — are generally not citizens, but come from the surrounding region. “These facilities follow the same kind of tactics in terms of taking people’s passports and then administering electric shocks, cattle prods and other corporal punishments if they don’t follow the rules.”

As troubling as it may be that a service that enables billions of dollars in transactions annually in the crypto scam industry is operating openly — and has ties to one of Cambodia’s most powerful families — Elliptic’s Robinson suggests that the brazenness provides an opportunity to disrupt a key pillar of that criminal industry: He proposes international sanctions targeting Huion’s leadership.

“It has the characteristics of a darknet marketplace, but it is run by a large Cambodian conglomerate with documented ties to the ruling family there,” argues Robinson. “There is certainly scope for banning this type of business to prevent such marketplaces from operating.”

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