Scams on the Rise. What Is “Pig Butchering?”

Scams on the Rise. What Is “Pig Butchering?”

Barry May, a divorced and retired insurance adjuster in Mississippi, said he started chatting with an Asian woman, named Anna, whom he met on Facebook. Anna told May that she lived in New York City on Fifth Avenue. In an interview with NBC News, May said Anna started sending him explicit photos.

May was attracted to her and wanted to move forward with their relationship. Anna told him she would come to him so that they could get married. But, she first needed a favor from him. Anna said her aunt was holding $3 million of her money and Anna needed May to invest in cryptocurrency so that her aunt would release her money. Anna promised him huge returns.

So, May said he sold property, liquidated his 401(k), and sent her more than $500,000—his life savings. May also saw an account that showed the returns on the money that he was allegedly making.

One day, May said he received a phone call. But it wasn’t Anna on the other end, it was an FBI agent who told May that he had been conned. And, he wasn’t the only one.

May is among thousands of people across the United States falling for the “pig butchering” romance scam that involves cryptocurrency. Pig butchering takes its name from farmers who fatten up their hogs for slaughter. Similarly, con artists “fatten up” their victims by convincing them to send more and more money over a long stretch of time. This form of fraud takes longer to perpetrate because con artists must build trust with their victims so that they will invest more money.

In all their weeks or months of communication, con artists will not meet their victims in person or through video chats. The scammers usually carry out their crimes through online platforms or the phone.

“It’s a sophisticated con, and you can see that because it’s a long-term con,” James Barnacle, Chief of the Financial Crimes Section of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, told NBC News.

Barnacle said people from all walks of life have fallen victim to pig butchering, including a scientist and a chief financial officer, both of whom thought they had carefully researched the phony crypto investment opportunities but were fooled by sophisticated fake websites.

In 2023 alone, Barnacle said more than 40,000 victims in the United States reported more than $3.5 billion in losses from pig butchering schemes. Also, “I’ve seen [individual] losses well into the $2-, $3-, $4 million,” Barnacle told NBC News.

According to Barnacle, pig-butchering scams are usually operated by organized criminal groups based in Southeast Asia that use workers who have been trafficked into forced labor.

How “Pig Butchering” Works

Whether victims are lured through text messages, social media, dating sites, or apps, pig butchering scams typically involve opportunities for romance and riches. The fraud follows this type of pattern, according to government and law enforcement authorities:

  • The scammer establishes a relationship with the victim. This can take weeks or months, especially if the fraud is a romance scam.
  • Once trust is established, the scammer introduces investing in cryptocurrency and eventually persuades the victim to invest a small amount of money. The scammer does not directly ask for money to avoid becoming suspicious since many people believe that a stranger asking for money is a common sign of a scam. The scammer usually asks the victim to wire the money.
  • After making a cryptocurrency investment, the scammer directs the victim to a phony website or app to see the so-called gains on their investments. The URL of the fake platform may be similar to that of a popular legitimate cryptocurrency market or exchange. The phony platform is controlled by the scammer, who might even allow the victim to withdraw money to convince them that the process is on the level. The scammer then encourages the victim to invest larger amounts of money to get a larger return.
  • Once the victim sends money, which could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars over time, the scammer shuts down the account, takes the money, and disappears. Most of the lost money is never recovered.

As a way to prevent victims from losing more money, the FBI has been monitoring suspicious transactions at banking institutions and contacting victims directly to warn them of the fraud.

“Working financial institutions, reviewing suspicious activity reports, and reviewing complaint data…we are able to intervene in some cases and have been able to contact victims and stop them from making further investments in these fraud schemes,” Barnacle said.

How to Avoid Pig Butchering Scams

Law enforcement and government authorities offer ways to protect yourself against pig butchering scams:

    • Be wary of anyone who wants to establish a relationship via phone, online, or text and then asks you to invest in cryptocurrency.

    • Be cautious of anyone who establishes a relationship online but comes up with excuses or flatly refuses to make video calls.

    • Do not share your personal information, including your Social Security number, copies of your identification or passport, or any other sensitive information with a stranger you have met online, via a text message, or on an app.

    • Do not share your banking information or discuss your financial position or investment with a stranger you have met online, via a text message, or on an app.

    • Avoid investment opportunities that guarantee big returns. If it sounds too good to be true, then it is.

May issued a personal warning.

“Just be careful,” May told NBC News. “If something is too good to be true, you know, if some beautiful young woman is interested in an older man and, ‘Oh, you do this for me, and I’ll do this for you,’ you know? Run away. Because 99.9% of the time it’s gonna be a scam. And they’re very, very, very good.”

Sadly, May has lost the majority of his life savings.

“I got about $10,000 left to my name, and that’s it,” May said. “My quality of life, you know, the things I wanted to do, it’s shot.”

May said he’s also struggling to afford medicine for his daughter, Bethany, who is disabled and lives with him.

Claudia Quiroz, who directs the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Unit told NBC News that people probably feel as if they are alone and wonder how could they have fallen for the scam.

“I would just say to those individuals, you’re not alone, Quiroz said. “This is very prolific. Reach out to law enforcement as soon as you can.”

If you believe you are or have been the victim of a pig butchering cryptocurrency scam, you can report the crime to:

    Your bank
    Your local police department
    Your State Attorney General’s Office
    Your FBI local office
    The FBI’s Internet Crime Center (IC3):
    The Federal Trade Commission:

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