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Cambodian rights group issues warning about of online loan sharks who prey on women

Exploitative online money lending networks are increasingly preying on poor Cambodian women on social media to trap them into debt and blackmail them by posting nude photos and videos of them online, a Cambodian human rights organization said Monday.

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho) said in a report on its website that it helped three women in the past year who were harassed by informal online lenders after they had borrowed small amounts to pay for health care or other expenses. 

“Licadho interviewed three female victims last year, but there are many more women who have reported to us,” Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s director general, told RFA Monday. “But, for their honor and dignity, they want to hide their identities. Their cases are similar.”

Exploitative online lenders thrive in countries like Cambodia where people struggle to pay informal fees and costs for health care and education. Private debt levels there skyrocketed to 174% of the country’s GDP as of March, and repayment of the debt has resulted in coerced land sales, unsafe migration and human rights abuses, Licadho said. 

The women who went to Licadho for help borrowed sums as small as U.S. $50, but were given high interest rates and vague terms that increased the amounts they had to repay. Other lenders contacted the women via the instant messaging appTelegram with new loan offers. The predatory lenders then harassed friends and relatives of the women to pressure them to pay off their debt.

At that point, a new group called Loanly stepped in and offered the women large loans so they could repay the smaller debt, but only if the women sent nude photographs or videos of themselves via Telegram, along with their location and identity documents.

Seeing no other way out, the women downloaded Loanly’s application, which granted the group access to their phone contacts. But they received hundreds of dollars less than promised via the mobile banking app eMoney, with Loanly claiming the rest was deducted as fees.

One of the women borrowed U.S. $1,000 from Loanly, received less than U.S. $600 after undefined fees, and then paid the group almost U.S. $1,400, though the harassment continued, Licadho said.

Loanly then harassed the women and their associates by phone, posted photos of their families on Facebook, and added them to Telegram groups where other women’s nude photos were being shared, Licadho said. Loanly distributed naked photos of one of the women in a Telegram group.

“The lenders threaten to publicize naked photos or videos to extort money from the victims, who would feel humiliated and disgraced among friends or family if the images were to go public,” said Am Sam Ath. 

Though the women filed official complaints with extensive evidence, the Ministry of Interior’s Anti-Cyber Crime Department has not taken any action against the predatory online lenders or held them accountable for their crimes, Licadho said. 

While Loanly’s application no longer appears to be available, the online loan groups continue to target and harass Cambodians on Facebook and Telegram.

“This creates impunity and has intensified fear among the victims,” Am Sam Ath said. “Licadho’s report is meant to warn social media users to be aware of this problem and not to be deceived.”

To stop predatory lending, the rights group has called on the Cambodian government to properly regulate formal and informal lending and provide accessible basic social services.

Licadho repeated a previous call for the Anti Cyber Crime Department to conduct rapid and thorough investigations to ensure justice in accordance with Cambodian law. It also called on Facebook and Telegram to prevent their platforms from being used for gender-based violence and criminal activity.

Translated by Sok Ry Sum for RFA Khmer. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.