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Oftentimes, scamming situations hinge on a false trust built between the scammer, and the poor individual they are hoping to scam. People aren’t usually inclined to give money to a stranger, but scammers have unfortunately found that trust and companionship, or at least the appearance of it, is enough to convince people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t, such as investing in a dubious cryptocurrency exchange.

In the scammer’s pursuit to build trust with the victim, and abuse that trust for the all-too common end-goal of separating people from their money, scammers have developed a wide-array of tactics. However, few are as insidious as the infamous “Pig-Butchering” scheme.

Likening victims to pigs being “fattened up” to yield the most meat before they’re slaughtered, the practice of the pig-butchering scheme is similar, with scammers building up trust with an individual, only to convince them to invest in cryptocurrency under the guise of a quick or guaranteed return on investment. Unfortunately, it’s often the case that once the victim “invests” that money, they’ll likely never see it again, or even worse, it could be the first step in a scammer’s pursuit to take even more. 

Pig Butchering: What is the process?

There are plenty of subtle variations that can occur in how scammers build trust with their victims, or what kind of crypto-scam they hope you’ll invest in, but regardless, the broad-strokes of a pig butchering scheme follow a predictable pattern.

  1. Establishing a connection with a victim: A scammer will reach out to talk to a potential victim on social media like Facebook or Instagram, or potentially a dating app. Oftentimes to initiate conversation, or break down barriers of skepticism, the scammer will pretend they have some mutual friend with the victim, or they accidentally received their contact info. Regardless, once this fictitious persona is established, the scammer will use it to build trust and continue the conversation down their desired path.
  2. Building Trust: Once contact is established, now it’s the scammers goal to maintain a relationship and regular discourse with the victim. This is to gain the victim’s trust and establish a false sense of security. After enough time passes, the scammer will then decide it is time to introduce the scheme.
  3. Introducing the Crypto Scheme: After trust is established, the scheme is introduced, usually in the form of an investment opportunity that’s just too good to be true. This is the crucial moment where all the time spent building trust and manipulating the victim finally pays off, so at this stage scammers will employ any means of persuasion and manipulation they can to convince their victim to invest, typically promising guaranteed or quick investment returns.
  4. Stolen Money Collection: If the scammer has convinced their target to invest their money, it isn’t going where the victim was told. That money is now in the hands of the scammer, and they employ a range of methods to make it difficult to trace, like using cryptocurrency themselves, or digital payment platforms such as Apple or Google pay.
  5. Disappearance: As soon as money is transferred, it’s the scammer’s main priority to disappear just as quickly. This can also happen in the case of victims attempting to withdraw their funds! They’ll find the fraudulent persona they’ve been talking to is nowhere to be found, the account is usually deleted, making the victim feel completely unable to access the money they just sacrificed to a fraudulent party. The worst part is, that’s often the case.

Victims on two levels: a uniquely insidious operation

If the only victims of pig-butchering scams were the ones falling prey to social manipulation and financial loss, that’d be plenty bad enough, but the reality is even worse. In fact, many of the scammers initiating contact with potential victims are themselves victims of even worse criminal organizations. 

Typically operating in southeast asian countries like Myanmar and Cambodia, many pig-butchering scam operations come from so-called “Fraud Factories”; operations set-up mainly by criminal gangs whose usual casino gambling operations were curtailed by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The reality of these operations are even crueler than your typical scam, as these gangs use false promises and the threat of violence to encourage innocent people, usually from mainland China, to work for them on a basis similar to slave-labor. Because many of these scammers are forced to conduct this illegal work through violence and intimidation, pig-butchering is a uniquely insidious practice that involves human trafficking and exploitation as well as the social manipulation and financial loss typical of other scams.

Pig-Butchering: Are you a victim?

While it’s true that scammers can be convincing, the signs of a pig-butchering scheme are numerous and trivial to spot if you know what to look for. Understanding the signs and tactics these fraudsters use to manipulate their victims can help you avoid falling for a risky investment before it’s too late. Some of these techniques are very similar to those used in romance scams.

  • During the initial contact stage, if the scammer starts talking to you out of nowhere, armed with an excuse as to how they got your contact info, or why they’re talking to you, that could be a tactic to establish trust and familiarity. On dating apps, usually this kind of excuse isn’t needed, since the pretense of looking for a relationship is already there.
  • After this phase, if the person you’re talking to suddenly brings up cryptocurrency, and tells you about the great returns they or you could potentially get through a certain investment opportunity, they could be attempting to familiarize you with the idea of crypto investing before convincing you to do it yourself.
  • If the person you’re communicating with tells you to download an investment app, or to move your conversation somewhere else, they could be trying to talk with you somewhere less secure, or transmit money and information somewhere unsafe.
  • On dating sites or apps, if you’re receiving lots of undue praise and attention from someone you haven’t talked to before, this could be love-bombing, an attempt to establish trust and connection that the scammer can take advantage of.
  • Another form of emotional manipulation scammers use can be through a sob-story. If a scammer brings up a dead relative, legal trouble, or other hardships, they may be doing it to keep you emotionally invested, and therefore more easily manipulated.
  • If the investment scheme has required minimum investment amounts, that could be a sign of a scam. This way, the scammer can guarantee they’re getting a minimum amount of money from you before pulling out or trying for more.
  • After investing, if you receive a suspiciously quick and large return, that could be a suspicious sign. This could be used to convince you the scheme is legitimate in the hopes it will compel you to invest more. When you attempt to withdraw that money, it’s likely you won’t receive it in the first place.
  • Scammers want to get as much money as possible from you before you realize what’s really going on, and one common way to do this in crypto-scams is through supposed fees and taxes. Maybe you’ve received what looks like a sizable return on your investment, but they’re asking for a fee to withdraw it, but that is just another way for the scammer to extract more money from the victim.

Don’t want to be scammed? Avoidance is key

The best way to avoid a pig-butchering scam is to make sure you don’t talk to scammers in the first place, otherwise you could be in for one expensive conversation. Here are some tips to help ensure you aren’t talking to someone looking to take your money:

  • Never share personal or financial information with someone you met online, this is especially important when it comes to your Social Security Number.
  • Never send money or cryptocurrency to someone you don’t know or trust, especially through messaging.
  • Remember that in crypto investing, there is no such thing as “guaranteed returns”. This kind of language is likely deceptive.
  • Don’t invest in cryptocurrency without a thorough understanding of how it works. Trusting your money with a complicated, difficult to predict system that you don’t fully understand is a disaster likely just waiting to happen.

Additionally, If you do suspect a scammer is trying to lure you into a pig butchering scam, here are some steps you can take to protect yourself:

  • Block and report their account before the interactions can continue.
  • Cease all contact with the scammer; they can’t scam you if you choose to ignore them.
  • Change your passwords and other credentials. If you shared any login info or access codes to your crypto accounts, the scammer won’t be able to access them.
  • File a police report. Scamming is obviously an illegal activity, so law enforcement should be notified if you suspect a scam is afoot.
  • Report the scamming activity to IC3, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. Be as descriptive as possible by showing them any messages and other activity that occurred during your interaction with the potential scammer.

The DART Collective: Empowerment Through Knowledge

In order to stay informed of the ever-evolving tactics, schemes, and language that scammers use, DART, Deception Awareness and Resilience Training is here to help. The DART Collective is an organization of researchers, security experts, game designers, and community-based organizations combining their talents, knowledge, and abilities, to empower older adults, protecting themselves from scams. For more information on Pig-Butchering, and other scams, refer to our resources page.

Scam Awareness Doesn’t Have to be Dull

DART offers a wide range of resources to help people protect themselves from scammers, but one that’s as useful as it is fun is our mobile game; DeepCover. By turning scam awareness into a fun espionage-themed puzzle game, DeepCover familiarizes players with the techniques
common amongst scammers and their wide array of schemes, making the game a fun way to encourage critical thinking and scam-awareness literacy. With DeepCover’s Play to Protect energy, people are equipped with the knowledge they need to stay one step ahead of those who wish to use them for monetary gain in a way that makes learning exciting.

Whether you are looking to educate yourself or would like to learn about opportunities to volunteer or partner in DART’s mission we would love to hear from you, contact us.