What’s a pig butchering scam? Here’s how to avoid falling victim to one

What’s a pig butchering scam? Here’s how to avoid falling victim to one

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

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If you’re like most people you’ve received a chat message or text in recent months from someone with a nice profile photo. You might get a simple “Hi” message or some kind of confused explanation about why your number appears to be in someone’s address book. These messages are not always accidental. They are the first step in an ongoing process that will take you from a friendly chat to online investments to watching your money disappear into the hands of fraudsters.

“Pig butchering,” as the technique is known–the phrase alludes to the practice of fattening a hog before slaughter–originated in China, then went global during the pandemic. Today, criminal syndicates target people all over the globe. They often force victims of human trafficking in Southeast Asia to commit the schemes against their will. ProPublica published a in depth investigation of pig butchering ,. It was based on extensive interviews with dozens scam victims, former scam workers, advocates, law enforcement and investigators. Also, extensive documentary evidence such as training manuals for fraudsters, chat transcripts between scammers with their targets, and complaints to the Federal Trade Commission.

“We’ve had people from all walks of life that have been victimized in these cases and the paydays have been huge,” said Andrew Frey, a financial investigator for the Secret Service, the federal agency that is taking a lead role in combating online crime and trying to help victims recover their stolen funds.

These swindles are not just highly organized, but also systematized. Here’s how fraudsters usually do it: Photos, text exchanges between targets and scammers, advice from training guides and police reports from pig-butchering cases:

1. Create a fake identity

Pig-butchers often start by creating an online persona. This is usually accompanied by a tempting photo (which might have been stolen), and images that convey a glamorous lifestyle.

Once they have an online profile, fraudsters start sending messages to people through social networking or dating sites. They may also use WhatsApp or another messaging platform to pretend they found the wrong number and contact you. (A spokesperson for Meta, the company that owns WhatsApp, told ProPublica previously that it is investing “significant resources” to keep pig-butchering fraudmers off its platforms. )

In December 2020, a Connecticut man received these messages on WhatsApp from a seemingly friendly stranger. He responded and eventually ended up getting tricked into two scams that cost him a total of $180,000.

[12/28/20, 12: 06 AM] SCAMMER J: Long time no see, how are you recently

[12/28/20, 10: 10 AM] SCAMMER J: Are you not Kevin? Sorry, I guess I added the wrong person, sorry

[12/28/20, 10: 16 AM] TARGET C: Not Kevin.

[12/28/20, 10: 16 AM] SCAMMER J: Sorry, I made the wrong call. Since I have many business partners, my assistant saved the wrong number, please forgive me

[12/28/20, 10: 17 AM] TARGET C: No prob. Which country are you calling?

[12/28/20, 10: 17 AM] SCAMMER J: I come from Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a major city with technology, finance, and food. Have you ever been here

[12/28/20, 10: 18 AM] SCAMMER J: Acquaintance is fate, where are you from

[12/28/20, 10: 18 AM] TARGET C: I’m from NYC originally

[12/28/20, 10: 19 AM] SCAMMER J: Your place is a very beautiful place, I went there years ago

3. Get the trust of the target

Next, you need to start a conversation with potential victims in order to gain their trust. With an eye to manipulating their victims, the scammers will often start innocent conversations about work, family, and life. They will fabricate details about your life that make you look like them. People like people who are similar to them.

When a Houston woman revealed her brother had cerebral palsy, a crook responded with a similar story:

[2/25/21, 6: 32: 38 PM] TARGET P: I have one brother that is handicapped and lives with my parents. Of course he’s coming with them for the weekend

[2/25/21, 6: 35: 36 PM] SCAMMER C: I see. My brother is being cared for by my parents. I hope he will live well

[2/25/21, 6: 38: 49 PM] TARGET P: My brother was born with cerebral palsy

[2/25/21, 6: 39: 19 PM] SCAMMER C: Sorry things, but also hard for your parents

[2/25/21, 6: 39: 29 PM] TARGET P: He’s healthy over all but you have to do everything for him. He can’t talk, dress, or feed himself

4. Sign them up

Soon, the swindlers will turn to investing. They will make claims about their investment successes and show screenshots of brokerage accounts with impressive numbers. They will try to convince their targets to open an online brokerage account. The brokerage is a scam, and any money that is deposited will be sent straight to the scammer. This last part is often not discovered by victims until it’s too late.

Guides to scammers recommend praising the reliability of MetaTrader, which is a trading app that fraudsters use to their advantage. They point out that the app can be downloaded from Apple’s App Store so it must be safe. (MetaTrader didn’t respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Apple stated that MetaTrader had raised concerns with the parent company and that the parent has taken appropriate steps to address the complaints. )

5. Get them to put real money into the fake account

Once marks agree to learn investing techniques, the scammers “help” them with their investment process. The fraudsters will show you how to wire money from your bank account to a cryptocurrency wallet and then to the fake brokerage. The fraudsters will usually recommend a small initial investment, which will invariably result in a gain.

A Michigan woman became interested in her online boyfriend’s claims about making money trading gold and offered his help. He was teaching her how she could get started investing in a fake brokerage available through MetaTrader:

3/16/21, 4: 40: 00 PM] TARGET T: What are you up to right now?

[3/16/21, 5: 11: 42 PM] SCAMMER L: I’m reading a book

[3/16/21, 5: 14: 39 PM] TARGET T: What book are you reading?

[3/16/21, 5: 17: 02 PM] SCAMMER L: A book about investing in gold

[3/16/21, 5: 19: 04 PM] TARGET T: Nice. You should learn from me. Make me your student.

[3/16/21, 5: 20: 37 PM] SCAMMER L: I don’t want you to be my student. I want you to be my wife.

6. “Prove” that it’s legitimate

Scammers often convince victims to withdraw money twice or more to dispel initial doubts. For example, fraudsters allowed a Canadian man named Sajid Ikram to withdraw 33,000 Canadian dollars, according to a statement he filed with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He was convinced that his investment was legitimate by the return money. He reported ultimately losing nearly $400,000, including money borrowed from several friends.

7. Manipulate them to invest more

This is just the beginning. Guides on pig butchering offer insight into how to exploit marks’ financial and emotional vulnerabilities to manipulate them into depositing more funds. It begins with assurances that investments are safe, but then it escalates to pressure to take out loans or liquidate retirement savings and even mortgage a home.

Over nine days, one fraudster (who called herself Jessica )) increased her pressure and pushed the target, a Californian man, to first use his cash, then tap his retirement savings, and then borrow money.

[11/3/21, 8: 03: 13 PM] TARGET Y: I just don’t want to risk

[11/3/21, 8: 03: 42 PM] SCAMMER J: When you need money, you can ask for it at any time

[11/3/21, 8: 04: 08 PM] SCAMMER J: This is not a risk, it is called maximizing profit

[11/8/21, 5: 31: 53 PM] TARGET Y: what can I do

[11/8/21, 5: 32: 27 PM] SCAMMER J: Your 401K can’t move?

[11/8/21, 5: 32: 50 PM] TARGET Y: You know how that works. Heavy penalties plus double taxation

[11/8/21, 5: 32: 53 PM] SCAMMER J: Then you can earn it back with a fine.

[11/11/21, 6: 20: 05 PM] SCAMMER J: Borrowing money from the bank is not a big deal, I often do

[11/11/21, 6: 22: 11 PM] TARGET Y: I am not ignoring you. I am trying to think

[11/11/21, 6: 22: 45 PM] SCAMMER J: You are a wise man, this is borrowing a chicken to lay eggs

[11/11/21, 6: 23: 23 PM] SCAMMER J: Really rich people use bank money to invest

8. Take them out

When targets reach a certain limit and are unable to deposit more funds, it is a sudden halt to their investment success. They are unable to withdraw funds or suffer a huge “loss” that wipes them out of their entire investment.

The California man was aghast when he discovered $440,000 he’d deposited was gone. Ultimately, the swindler persuaded him to invest another $600,000, which also disappeared into the swindler’s account.

[11/18/21, 11: 59: 16 AM] TARGET Y: I lost all my money

[11/18/21, 11: 59: 18 AM] SCAMMER J: If the principal is not enough, it cannot be supported to the profit point.

[11/18/21, 11: 59: 34 AM] SCAMMER J: Don’t worry,

[11/18/21, 11: 59: 46 AM] TARGET Y: I am negative $480k

[11/18/21, 12: 00: 01 PM] SCAMMER J: Prepare the funds and earn them back.

[11/18/21, 12: 00: 12 PM] TARGET Y: I don’t have any money or funds to prepare

[11/18/21, 12: 00: 20 PM] TARGET Y: That’s all I have!!!!!!!!!!!!

9. Use their desperation to your advantage

Scammers then tell victims that they have a solution. They can deposit more money into the brokerage to regain what they have lost. Sometimes, the claim is that the investment is successful–but there’s a “tax problem” that requires paying additional funds equal to, say, 20% of their total account value. The scammer will claim that new hurdles have been created that require payment of new fees if the victim pays.

No matter how much targets pay, it’s never enough, as detailed in the FTC complaint excerpted below, which was filed by a pig butchering victim in Maryland. The scammers kept requesting taxes and other fees to recover the money.

“I applied to withdraw my money and profit from this website after trading ended. The broker asked me to pay a tax on the profit of 88,587. 90 usd on 8162021, this amount was wired again through Bank of America into a foreign account in Hong Kong. Another request for me to pay security deposit on my profits which was 83,950. 00 usd wired out to a different foreign account in Hong Kong once again. The broker asked for a bank and withdrawal processing fee of 27,983. 34 usd again was wired out to a different foreign account in Hong Kong. The very last wire was for expediting the withdrawal and the platform asked for 55,966. 60 usd wired out to Hong Kong. I wired the usd to Hong Kong at this point because I had already spent too much money on the platform.

10. Leave

and get tanned

Once the victims realize they have been conned, the fraudsters will often taunt or insult them. Soon, they stop speaking and the websites of their fake brokerages stop working. They then relaunch a website under a different URL, and start the process again with other targets.

After nearly four months of chatting and $30,000 in losses for the Michigan victim, her scammer seemed to revel in unveiling the financial–and emotional–deception:

[7/1/21, 3: 25: 31 PM] SCAMMER L: I’m a liar, too.

[7/1/21, 3: 25: 42 PM] TARGET T: What do you mean you are a liar?

[7/1/21, 3: 25: 58 PM] SCAMMER L: But I am very kind, I only cheated you out of 30K, thank you for 30K

[7/1/21, 3: 26: 16 PM] TARGET T: Wow.

[7/1/21, 3: 26: 55 PM] TARGET T: You deleted this message.

[7/1/21, 3: 27: 23 PM] TARGET T: You don’t really love me? We are not getting married?

[7/1/21, 3: 27: 44 PM] SCAMMER L: Surprise or surprise. I’m not surprised.

What to do if you’ve been scammed

Report the crime to your bank immediately and the appropriate law enforcement agencies (the FBI, Secret Service, and the local police) if you have been victimized. Your bank will be unable to reverse fraudulent transactions. Law enforcement can trace, freeze, or seize stolen funds if you wait longer. “We are going to be more successful than if we wait,” Erin West, deputy District Attorney at the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office said. She has had some success seizing assets related to pig butchering frauds.

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