Thai police disrupt a transnational scam network using Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite, targeting Thailand with high-tech operations spanning across Asia and other parts of the world.

Thai police, on Friday, revealed that they have disrupted a call scammer gang that planned to use Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite network to link it with telecommunications networks across the world including the European Union, the United Kingdom and Asia. Starlink is a commercial satellite firm operated by Musk’s SpaceX. Police are still studying the find of hardware and data destined for the Golden Triangle area in Laos via Chiang Rai. However, they believe it was Chinese-controlled and in transit from war-torn Myanmar. It was staffed by Burmese, Thai, Lao and Chinese personnel. The find comes after a December 2023 report across Asia showed that Thai people are the most susceptible population to online scams.

Police Lieutenant General Jiraphat Phuridet briefing the media on Friday, April 12th, on the haul discovered by police. Valued at ฿5.4 million, it appeared to be a call centre operation on the move out of Myanmar to Laos within the Golden Triangle.

Thailand’s Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) has made a breakthrough discovery into the operations of scammers network on the country’s borders.

The discovery occurred after a parcel was posted from the United Kingdom to an address in Chiang Mai. It indicated that an extensive international scammer organisation may be on the move.

Senior officers were surprised by the extent of the find eventually. In particular, the gang appears to be utilising the Starlink satellite network.

Starlink satellite network operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX allows scam gangs to bypass cable connections to territorial telecommunication firms worldwide

Starlink was established by US-based billionaire Elon Musk. It is a commercial satellite network in space run by Musk’s firm SpaceX. 

In short, it has previously been used by foreign militaries and governments to provide internet access through space.

In effect, the system allows operators to bypass normal telecommunications networks.

The discovery comes after a recent move by the Royal Thai Police to sever cable connections between Sa Kaeo Province and scammer gangs in Cambodia just across the border from Thailand.

This allowed Cambodian call centres to operate as if they were based in Thailand.

Similarly, then Deputy National Police Chief Torsak Sukwimol in December 2022, led the first such operation.

It dismantled a complex communications system between the Aranyaprathet district of Sa Kaeo province and scammer call centres across the border believed to be near Poipet.

Poipet is a Cambodian casino city dominated by Chinese investors and criminal gangs. Indeed, the overlap between Chinese mafia gangs, casinos and illegal call centres is notable in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

Breakthrough came as Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) officers intercepted an extensive communications package shipped to Chiang Rai destined for Laos

Meanwhile, in the latest significant crackdown on international fraud, Thailand’s Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) on Friday reported another major breakthrough.

In short, it included equipment that was destined for the Golden Triangle area near the infamous King Roman Casino across the border in Laos.

This is a Chinese-owned development that is infamous as a centre for illegal and unregulated activities.

Indeed this is the hallmark of the Golden Triangle area. The region spans northeastern Myanmar, northwestern Thailand and northern Laos.

Before this, such operations were previously found in northern Myanmar’s Shan State.

However, since Burma’s National Unity Government has made advances throughout the war-torn country, such operations have been uprooted.

Certainly, this call centre gang planned to use equipment using high-tech international communications.

In brief, this included Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet receivers. The police operation has revealed a large network spanning multiple countries.

At the same time, this has marked the first time such technology was uncovered in criminal activities here.

Massive haul of technological equipment seized. Valued at ฿5.4 million, some was second hand with extensive data and intelligence for police to glean

The operation was spearheaded by Police Lieutenant General Jiraphat Phuridet, commander of the Central Investigation Bureau.

In addition, there was Police Major General Montree Thetkhan of the Crime Suppression Division.

The haul was located by Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) officers working in conjunction with a marine patrol on the Mekong River.

A press conference was held on Friday, April 12, 2024, in Chiang Saen District, Chiang Rai Province. Officers announced the seizure of a massive haul of technological equipment. 

This was explicitly used in call centre operations according to police findings. 

For instance, manuals, diaries and intelligence were also found on devices as part of the haul.

It indicated staff from Burma, Thailand, China and Laos were involved. However, they were also working in tandem with cells throughout the world from Japan to the United States and the United Kingdom.

Links to Romance scams and bank accounts. Police found sample profiles, photos in addition to ATM cards with written notes containing codes and passwords

The racket included romance scams as well as bank fraud and a range of other deceptions. The intelligence contained on the devices includes information on nominee bank accounts.

In addition, police also found ATM cards with written passwords and codes on paper.

Police Lieutenant General Jiraphat described the current fraud tactics as being heavily reliant on social media and call centre scams. 

Previously, the government established an operations centre to combat online crime. In short, it is known as the Anti Online Scam Operation Center (AOC). It was launched on Wednesday 1st November 2023.

The investigation revealed on Friday began with a suspicious package. At length, officers suspected it to be related to transnational crime. 

It was sent from an address in the United Kingdom and ultimately destined for the Golden Triangle region. The package, on arrival in Thailand, was to be forwarded to neighbouring Laos.

Neighbouring Laos is becoming a hub of illegal activities particularly linked to Chinese mafia groups

Laos, Thailand’s neighbour, in particular, has emerged as a centre of international illegality in recent years.

From illegal surrogacy operations to human trafficking, Thailand’s neighbour appears to be a jurisdiction where armed Chinese mafia groups are operating with impunity.

Upon inspection at Chiang Saen Customs Checkpoint, authorities found a variety of contraband.

In brief, the haul included 94 All-In-One computers, 347 mobile phones, and 15 Chinese notepads.

The equipment was hidden in cardboard and plastic boxes near the base of trees along the Mekong River.

Investigations revealed that the devices were tools used by scammers and call centre gangs to defraud the public.

They contained numerous chat messages resembling conversation scripts.

Similarly, among the data were profiles of men and women from around the world. These scripts included romantic chat messages and investment persuasion, similar to the ‘Romance Scam’ rackets.

High-speed satellite internet receiver from SpaceX’s Starlink found in a package forwarded from Japan

Moreover, the packages contained five telephone boxes with mobile phones, SIM cards, bank account books, ATM cards, and written codes for accessing bank applications.

An additional two packages were discovered. 

One contained nearly 5,000 mobile phone SIM cards from the Vodafone network in Europe. The other, significantly, contained ten high-speed satellite internet receivers from SpaceX’s Starlink. This came from Japan.

Police believe the use of Starlink in criminal operations marks a significant development. Undoubtedly, it enables gangs to connect to the internet immediately via satellite, bypassing traditional internet infrastructure.

Police Lieutenant General Jiraphat speculated that a call centre gang might be relocating their base of operations.

The network’s expansive reach and sophisticated tools suggest a large-scale international operation. Moreover, one with branches in various countries.

‘We believe that this gang is a large network with branches in many countries. If one place is not safe, they will change to another place. If a country is safe, we will go and do things in that country because we have never encountered so many stolen goods before. Therefore, it is believed that it is expanding its base and goals throughout the world. It is a global problem that various countries must work together to suppress. Because it is a serious danger to society,’ Police Lieutenant General Jiraphat stated.

Global call centre destined for the Golden Triangle

The investigation also highlighted the global aspect of the operation. Notably, the SIM cards sent from England were issued by the Vodafone mobile network. In turn, the satellite internet receivers were sent from Japan.

It is understood the value of the equipment seized comes to ฿5.4 million.

The equipment was originally destined for Chiang Saen District, Chiang Rai Province. Afterwards, it was to be forwarded to the King Roman area in Laos. This is located near Thailand but across the Mekong River. It is part of the infamous Golden Triangle

The final stage of the operation focused on computers, mobile phones, and notepads. Evidently, the equipment had been used in Myanmar for previous call centre operations.

Police on Friday, however, indicated that the target of the scammers were people in Europe, Asia, Japan and China.

Authorities emphasised the cross-border nature of the intercepted criminal enterprise. 

Police identify the need for international assistance from other police forces in tackling the case. Including Laos, China, the UK, Burma and Cambodia

Meanwhile, it has also highlighted the need for international police cooperation in addressing the issue.

Police Colonel Ekkasit Pansitha, superintendent of the 4th Division of the Royal Thai Police, explained: ‘The second central part is a high-speed satellite internet receiver sent from Japan. This was via air transportation to Chiang Saen District to pass on to the Chinese gang. In addition, Thai operatives at King Roman as well. The third set is a computer, mobile phone, and notebook we have translated from Chinese.’

As the investigation progresses, police aim to uncover the individuals and networks involved in this international call centre scam. 

Thai authorities will work closely with police forces in England, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and China. The goal is to dismantle the criminal network and prevent further illicit activities. This ultimately must mean arrests.

Thai people most susceptible to scammers in Asia

In the broader context, the 2023 Asia Scam Report was published in December 2023. It revealed Thailand’s heightened risk of phone scams, making it the top target in Asia.

A survey across Asia among 20,000 people revealed that 88% of Thai people were susceptible.

This was the highest figure in the continent. The survey across 11 countries was undertaken by the GASA (The Global Anti-Scam Alliance). Gogolook, a leading Taiwanese app developer, also took part.

In short, the survey revealed that Thai people are the most likely to fall victim to such rackets. The survey also noted an inflated sense of confidence among potential victims.

Unquestionably, too many people believe, falsely, that they can detect such scams.

At the same time, most of these scams are perpetrated on social media. In particular via the LINE application, SMS messages and personal telephone calls.

At the same time, 50% of those interviewed said they encountered an online scam at least once a week.

Fears the threats from call centre scams are growing due to the theft of personal data with widespread and creative use of Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Authorities and private organisations are working together to tackle the growing threat of fraud.

The police emphasise the need for regional cooperation and information exchange. This is particularly urgent given the growing threat now being faced. It comes as criminals begin to embed AI technology into their scams. 

Combined with pilfered user data on the dark web, this technology potentially will make scams more effective and compelling.

Government and commercial datasets across the world are now widely being hacked and offered for sale online.

In September last year, Deputy National Police Chief Surachate Hakparn, now seconded to the Prime Minister’s Office, questioned a former Cambodian police chief and later minister in the Hun Manet government.

This was related to extensive call centre gangs run in Cambodia by the Chinese mafia.

Cambodian cybercrime industry run by Chinese criminals could be generating up to 38% of its GDP

It came as a United Nations report revealed a substantial businessman with links to the country’s strongman Hun Sen, as an owner of key properties used by the scammers.

Indeed, a major US non-governmental organisation (NGO) estimated that no less than 37.64% of Cambodia’s real GDP was linked to the online cybercrime industry.

Concern over mafia groups in neighbouring countries

General Surachate’s questions for the Cambodian police were linked to a police operation in 2022.

In short, it aimed to rescue a reported 3,000 Thai nationals being held as work slaves by the industry in the eastern kingdom.

Crumbling Burmese junta sends a plane to Tak to rescue retreating soldiers. They failed to show up as rebels advance

The latest discovery in Chiang Rai shows that the Chinese-run industry is being disturbed by the liberation of Thailand’s western neighbour from the clutches of the despised military junta.

At the same time, the gang’s use of the Starlink satellite system shows the scale and ambition of their efforts.

In truth, they aim to supersede state authorities and national law enforcement agencies by deception to steal from the masses.

Join the Thai News forum, follow Thai Examiner on Facebook here
Receive all our stories as they come out on Telegram here
Follow Thai Examiner here

Further reading:

Cambodian cybercrime industry run by Chinese criminals could be generating up to 38% of its GDP

Massive police response to the case of a family murdered by father after ฿1.7 million scam loss last week

Debt and ฿1.7 million loss to scammers drive man to murder his wife and two sons in Samut Prakan

Loan shark arrested in Nonthaburi for bullying a borrower charged an annual interest rate of 730%

Bank of Thailand to tackle household debt in new plan from 2024 which will see higher standards

Politicians skating on thin ice as the economy may not be able to withstand a political stalemate

Debt crisis may be one of the top items on the new cabinet’s agenda as central bank stands ready

Potential hazard lights flashing as kingdom’s auto loans spiral into default with sky-high borrowing