The $11 Billion Market Enables the Cryptocurrency Scam Economy

The public nature of the criminal dealings is all the more shocking given that Huione Guarantee is run by Huione Group, a Cambodian financial conglomerate that includes a company linked to the family of Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Manet. One of the company’s directors is, in fact, Hun To, the prime minister’s cousin, who has linked in an Al Jazeera investigation to a fraudulent complex allegedly owned by Heng He, a Cambodian conglomerate owned by two Chinese nationals.

Cryptocurrency scam researchers say Huione Guarantee, despite its size, is just one of many methods used by pig killers to launder money. Because much of the pig-killing ecosystem is linked to China’s organized crime, pig-killing proceeds are often laundered in a decentralized manner by convincing individual Chinese citizens to accept and transfer cryptocurrency through their personal Alipay accounts for a small fee, notes Gary Warner, director of intelligence at cybersecurity firm DarkTower. But marketplaces like Huione Guarantee provide an avenue for scammers who don’t yet have a money-laundering network they can trust or who need to diversify their options for liquidating funds.

Screenshot of chat messages and electric shock collar device

A listing on Huione Guaranteed of charged GPS tracking shackles to detain enslaved workers.

With the help of Elliptic

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Huione Guarantee started operating in 2021, given the rise in cryptocurrency scams during the Covid-19 pandemic. Sophos’ Gallagher notes that in Cambodia, pig slaughter operations are largely run by hotels and resorts that have struggled with a sharp drop in tourism in 2020 and 2021. “They are heavily funded or wholly owned by Chinese companies involved in special economic zones and other developments tied to the Belt and Road,” he says. Gallagher’s research shows that workers in Cambodia’s pig slaughter industry — often against their will — are often non-citizens who come from surrounding areas. “These establishments follow the same playbook of taking people’s passports and then using electric shocks, electric batons and other corporal punishment for not following the rules.”

While it may be troubling that a service that facilitated billions of dollars in cryptocurrency fraud is being conducted so openly—and is linked to one of Cambodia’s most powerful families—Elliptic’s Robinson argues that this brazenness could create an opportunity to disrupt the foundations of this criminal industry: He proposes international sanctions targeting Huione’s leadership.

“This has the characteristics of a darknet market, but it is run by a large Cambodian conglomerate with documented links to the ruling family there,” Robinson argued. “There is certainly scope for sanctions on a business like this, to prevent this type of market from operating.”


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