Gambling trap bankrupts families

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Local conmen lure kids to casinos across the border, where they are forced into debt and held for ransom

A gambling table at a casino in Cambodia. Many Vietnamese families say their children have been lured to casinos in the neighboring country and held for ransom. (Photo by Tien Trinh)

In February, the US$100-million Titan King Resort and Casino opened in Bavet City in Cambodia's Svay Rieng Province, about a kilometer from the border with Vietnam, becoming the tenth casino in the province.

Including the January opening of the Diamond Casino bordering Vietnam in Kirivong District, Takeo Province, there are now 32 licensed casinos in Cambodia, according to the English-language Phnom Penh Post newspaper.

Some Cambodian casinos suffered losses during the global financial crisis, but those along the Vietnamese border weathered the slump well.

Vietnamese making land crossings made up the highest number of visitors to Cambodian casinos last year, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

"Most gamblers will be Vietnamese but my goal is also to attract people from other countries," Kith Thieng, Titan King owner, told Reuters.

But an increasing number of Vietnamese families are reporting that their children are being lured, even abducted, to the Cambodian casinos, where conmen supply them money to gamble with. When the naïve kids, mostly students, then rack up thousands of dollars of debt, the conmen kidnap them and call their families for ransom, according to local police.

Life's a gamble

In a recent case, police in the southern Binh Duong Province, which neighbors Ho Chi Minh City, have launched an investigation into accusations that a criminal gang has been luring local youths to Cambodian casinos in order to run them into debt and extort ransom.

Vuong Tan Phuong, chief of police in Lai Uyen Commune, Ben Cat District, said detectives were investigating around ten people allegedly involved in the scam. He said police were also broadening the investigation outside of those ten suspects.

Many Ben Cat residents have reported to police that a group of locals has been visiting villages and luring local youths to join them on trips to Cambodian casinos

Le Thi Tuyet of Binh Duong Province's Hoa Loi Commune says her 20-year-old son was kept in Cambodia for ransom after indebting himself to a casino there. (Photo by Nguyen Long)

Tang Thi Hong Thanh of Binh Duong's My Phuoc Town said she had paid $5,000 for the release of her 17-year-old son, Nguyen Thanh Tu, after he had been lured to a casino in Cambodia a month ago.

Tu said he was invited by some friends to take a trip to Cambodia, where he was given $200 and told to try his luck at a casino. However, he later lost $3,000 and was told to write a debt note.

"I lost another $2,000 after a man handed me the sum and told me to play and get back what I had lost," he said.

Vietnam's annual per capita income is around $1,000.

Nguyen Thi Nghia of Hoa Loi Commune in Binh Duong's Ben Cat District told Thanh Nien on April 25 that her 18-year-old son was being held for a $5,000 ransom in Cambodia after being coaxed into a gambling trip by a mysterious man named Binh who met the boy at a café.

Nghia said her son had left the house on the night of April 20 and sent an SMS a day later to inform her of the situation.

Police in Hoa Loi Commune said there had been ten cases in which locals had been lured by similar cons. Investigators said a total of at least $40,000 in debts was involved in the cases.

Another 26 cases were reported in Chanh Phu Hoa Commune, including five people still being held in Cambodia because their families couldn't afford the ransom. My Phuoc Town has also reported that two of its residents had been kidnapped in Cambodia the same way.

Most families said they were poor and had to borrow from loan sharks to pay for their children's release.

Le Thi Tuyet of Hoa Loi Commune said her son had been kept in Cambodia for several days because she couldn't afford a ransom of $2,400. She had already paid $4,000 when her son was first caught in the trap two months ago.

And as if problems with overseas casinos weren't enough, Canadian developer Asian Coast Development Limited is developing the $4.2 billion MGM Grand Ho Tram in the beach town of Vung Tau 130 kilometers from HCMC. The resort and casino will be managed by MGM Mirage, which has left its grotesque mark on Las Vegas with its 16 multicolored resorts that rake in billions in total annual profits.

Alongside the problems of Cambodian casinos, Vietnam has seen the rise of illegal Internet gambling, which is victimizing an increasing number of people each year.

Conned gamblers threatened with organ removal

Pham Quoc Trung of Binh Duong Province was rescued on April 22 by his family who paid VND45 million (US$2,373) to some men at Winn Casino in Cambodia for his release.

This Thanh Nien reporter, who pretended to be one of Trung's relatives, accompanied his uncle Phan Kinh on the trip and found a well-organized racket to lure Vietnamese victims to gambling traps in Cambodian casinos

As we arrived at Go Dau District, some 20 kilometers from the Moc Bai Border Gate in southern Tay Ninh Province, many men on motorcycles offered to illegally take people across the border to gamble.

Pham Quoc Trung (R) reunites with his father after being kidnapped and taken to the Winn Casino in Cambodia (Photo by Hoang Tuan)

A man named Hung, who had contacted Trung's family, later arrived near the border and took Kinh and this reporter through many rice fields to the Winn Casino in around 15 minutes.

Trung was freed after Kinh paid VND45 million to the men at the casino, and an extra VND1.5 million for being taken back to Vietnam.

The motorcycles stopped mid-way and hid behind a house after the drivers said there was a police patrol somewhere. Another Vietnamese woman and her son, who she had rescued after paying a ransom, were also found hiding at the same place.

Trung said he was tempted by Tran Thanh Hoai of Ben Cat District's Cay Truong Commune to go to the Cambodian casino when he was at a café in the commune on April 17. He said Hoai told him about beautiful girls and free food and beer given there.

Arriving at the Winn Casino, Trung was told by a man named Phong to take 1,000 chips from a woman named Tham and to join him to play. After losing $1,000, Phong took Trung to have free food and beer before telling him to take another 1,000 chips from Tham. They also lost this time.

Trung was later locked in a room where he was kept for several days and told to call home to ask for a ransom payment.

Trung was also beaten by a Cambodian man who threatened to immerse him in ice and sell his organs. He was also forced to ink his fingerprints on a debt note.

Several other youths also told similar stories of being lured to Cambodian casinos and detained for ransom. One of the victims, identified only as B., also said some men had threatened to "treat" him badly because his mother had reported the case to the media.

Another victim, who wished to be known only as Th., said he had been enticed to a Cambodian casino on April 20 with an offer of $1,000 to gamble. He was forced to sign the debt note and detained for seven days before his family paid for his release.

"They threatened to sell our kidneys at $3,000 each if our families failed to pay ransom," he said, adding that he had been detained with two other Vietnamese.

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