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The Hidden Dangers of Pig Butchering Scams

There is an air of despair about him that is almost pitiable, but the despair makes you want to listen to his advice to tread warily when it comes to unsolicited calls and promises of quid pro settlements. Having lost over USD 500,000 including his property which he sold, Barry May (1), a 62-year old Mississippi resident, could be forgiven for wanting a shoulder to cry on. Falling for the oldest trick in the world over social media – the promise of beginning a relationship with a woman – the divorced insurance adjuster, is distraught over having been swindled out of his life savings. He is now down to his last few thousand dollars and struggling to make ends meet while taking care of the medical bills of his disabled daughter.

Barry May is just one of many people of different backgrounds from all over the world, who are victims of ‘pig butchering’ scams.

What they are

Said to have originated in China (2) from the Chinese phrase ‘Shāz Hū Pán’, which means butchering a pig, the scam is built around winning the trust of a victim over a long time. Because it invariably involves women, the scam is often referred to as a romance scam, more often than not coming with the promise of long-term relationships and the lure of large rewards in exchange for favors.

The scam is known to be perpetrated by South East Asian women in particular and has been observed to proliferate over dating and social media sites.

The scam gets its name from its modus operandi. Scout for gullible netizens, beguile the prospective victim, win his trust over an extended period of time (a process that is referred to as fattening the hog), make lucrative offers, offer proof of genuineness, spring the trap, siphon the funds (a process that is referred to as slaughtering the hog), sink the hook deeper in the hope of further gains, and then depart.

In certain cases, in a show of brazen contempt for the victim, perpetrators are known to gloat and taunt the victims, safe in the haven of anonymity that the internet provides.

How they are affected

Typically a pig butchering scam starts with the scammer identifying a potential victim through social media channels and dating sites. They are also known to originate over messaging services, with simple messages like a ‘hello’ or ‘hi’, from an unknown number. Many of the victims fall for the scam in the hope of illicit liaisons or sex. Scammers are known to also create fake identities to conceal themselves. Once the victim is identified, the scammer begins a long process of carefully winning the trust of the victim, over a period running into weeks or months. This period is crucial to the scammer’s malicious plan.

The scammer often introduces a financial angle once the trust is won, using a variety of ruses varying from the need for company, a wealthy relative, a despairing situation, the promise of a favor in return for money being deposited, etc. A common modus operandi is the dangling of exceedingly high financial lures in cryptographic transactions. The scammer may often offer small monetary returns to the victim to prove their credibility and further gain their trust.

Once the trust has been won, the scammer springs the trap, with the hapless victim effecting the transfer of funds to the scammer’s account or the fake cryptography URLs, only to find the account is inaccessible, and the scammer not to be found or traceable.

The telltale signs

An offshoot of social engineering because of their origins, pig butchering scams are generally characterized by:

  • unexpected contact from an unknown source in the form of a text message over social media
  • offers and promises of inordinately large sums of money and quick returns, sometimes supported by promising schemes intended to defraud
  • appeals for assistance in return for a favor
  • offers of long-term relationships invariably imbued with a sexual angle
  • trust-building exercises including trading on fake platforms and apps, that ultimately stop once the scam is effected

Why they happen

Pig butchering scams exploit weaknesses inherent in human nature. Victims are invariably elderly persons of substantial financial means, looking either for gratifying relationships, or eager to consolidate their financial empires by cashing in on attractive offers. Bad actors are the masters of manipulation, exploiting greed and desire – those inherent human failings which from time immemorial have driven humanity to act irrationally and without a second thought.

Our blog on Social Engineering (3) which covers some of the human weaknesses bad actors prey on, will make interesting reading.

How to stop them

As with most preventive measures concerning cybersecurity scams, pig butchering can be easily prevented with a little forethought and caution. ‘Think before you act’ and ‘look before you leap’ are two phrases worth remembering when dealing with unsolicited contacts, attractive offers, and promises of unprecedented returns or offers of help. More often than not, they are the opening lines of a well-planned strategy meant to tempt the user into falling for a well-orchestrated plan to defraud the unwitting victim.

The FBI has entered the fray after a spate of cases were reported running into millions of dollars being lost in such scams. It has prompted experts to exhort netizens to keep their guard up by:

  • skeptically viewing communications received over the internet
  • learning to say ‘no’ and refusing to be lured into accepting offers that seem lucrative
  • thinking before taking up any new offer
  • spending time on research before acting on financial offers
  • educating oneself about financial schemes, especially cryptography, which is becoming increasingly popular

Final words

Barry May’s predicament was stopped from being further exacerbated by the timely intervention of the FBI, which alerted him to the scam. ‘Anna’ the scammer had won his trust to such an extent that he was on the point of applying for another loan and falling further into debt. Now irrevocably in debt, his words are a warning that should be taken seriously.

‘Be very careful’, he said, sounding a warning to well-heeled elderly men looking for relationships. ‘If a beautiful young woman starts to interest you, with a ‘you do this for me, and I’ll do this for you’ offer, run! Almost always it’s a scam, and they will get you because they are very, very good!’

Ominous words that spell out loud and clearly, the danger of pig butchering scams!


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