Exploitative online money-lending networks are increasingly exploiting poor Cambodian women on social media to trap them in debt and blackmail them into posting nude photos and videos of them online, it said on Monday. a Cambodian human rights organization.
The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho) said in a report on his website that he has helped three women over the past year who were harassed by informal online lenders after borrowing small amounts to pay for health care or other expenses.
“Licadho interviewed three female victims last year, but there are many more women who reported to us,” Am Sam Ath, director general of Licadho, told RFA on Monday. “But, for their honor and dignity, they want to hide their identity. 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. The level of private debt there has skyrocketed to 174 percent of the country’s GDP in March, and debt repayments have led to forced land sales, dangerous migration and human rights abuses, a Licadho said.
Women who came to Licadho for help borrowed sums as low as US$50, but received high interest rates and vague terms that increased the amounts they had to repay. Other lenders contacted the women via the Telegram instant messaging app with new loan offers. The predatory lenders then harassed the women’s friends and relatives to force them to repay their debt.
At that time, a new group called Loanly stepped in and offered women big loans so they could pay off even the smallest debt, but only if the women sent in nude photos or videos of themselves via Telegram, as well as their location and identity documents.
Seeing no other way out, the women downloaded Loanly’s app, which gave the group access to their phone contacts. But they received hundreds of dollars less than promised through the eMoney mobile banking app, with Loanly saying the rest was deducted as a fee.
One of the women borrowed US$1,000 from Loanly, received less than US$600 after indefinite charges, then paid the group nearly US$1,400, although the harassment continued, Licadho said.
Loanly then harassed the women and their associates over the phone, posted photos of their families on Facebook and added them to Telegram groups where other photos of naked women were shared, Licadho said. Loanly distributed nude photos of one of the women in a Telegram group.
“Lenders threaten to post nude photos or videos to extort money from victims, who would feel humiliated and dishonored among their friends or family if the images were to be made public,” Am Sam Ath said.
Although the women filed formal complaints with ample evidence, the Home Office’s cybercrime department has taken no action against the predatory online moneylenders or held them accountable for their crimes, saying Licadho said.
While Loanly’s app appears to be no longer available, online lending groups continue to target and harass Cambodians on Facebook and Telegram.
“It creates impunity and has intensified fear among the victims,” said Am Sam Ath. “Licadho’s report is meant to warn social media users to be aware of this issue and not be misled.”
To end predatory lending, the rights group called on the Cambodian government to properly regulate formal and informal lending and provide accessible basic social services.
Licadho reiterated a previous call on the Cybercrime Department to carry out prompt and thorough investigations to ensure justice according to Cambodian law. He 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.