The Pig-butchering Scam Epidemic: An Overview of the Growing Threat of Online Scams

Category Technology

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A highly collaborative crime known as the pig-butchering scam has been stealing millions for victims on LinkedIn and other sites. China has seen a movie based on the events, as well as books being released. Their governments have been attempting to crack down on the activity, although have had difficulty due to international law enforcement obstructions in Cambodia and more.

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There’s something so visceral about the phrase "pig-butchering scam." The first time I came across it was in my reporting a year ago, when I was looking into how strange LinkedIn connection requests turned out to be from crypto scammers. As I wrote then, fraudsters were creating "fake profiles on social media sites or dating sites, [to] connect with victims, build virtual and often romantic relationships, and eventually persuade the victims to transfer over their assets." The name, which scammers themselves came up with, compares the lengthy, involved trust-building process to what it’s like to grow a pig for slaughter. It’s a tactic that has been used to steal millions of dollars from victims on LinkedIn and other platforms. You can read that story here.

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This kind of fraud is the subject of a new Chinese movie that unexpectedly became a box-office hit. No More Bets is centered on two Chinese people who are lured to Myanmar with the promise of high-paying jobs; once trapped abroad, they are forced to become scammers, though—spoiler alert—they eventually manage to escape. But many of their fellow victims are abused, raped, or even killed for trying to do the same. While the plot is fictional, it was adapted from dozens of interviews the movie crew conducted with real victims, some of which are shown at the end of the film. (I’ll probably check out the movie when it premieres in the US on August 31.) .

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Many of them are from rural areas and have little education. But as another Chinese publication recently reported, scammer groups are increasingly looking to recruit highly educated people as they target more Chinese students overseas, or even English-speaking populations. Chinese people are no strangers to telecom fraud and online scams, but the recent wave of attention has made them aware of how globalized these scams have become. It has also tarnished the reputation of Southeast Asian countries, which are now struggling to attract Chinese tourists.

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Meanwhile, in the US, Number Go Up, a new book about cryptocurrencies by Bloomberg reporter Zeke Faux, is out next month. Faux traveled to Sihanoukville in southwestern Cambodia, where criminal gangs orchestrate pig-butchering scams. It was once a prosperous casino town for Chinese businesspeople (gambling is outlawed in China). But after the Cambodian government turned against gambling, and the pandemic made international travel difficult, the gambling gangs turned their casinos into online scam operation centers.

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But stories of successful escapes are rare. Even though the Chinese government announced in mid-August that it would work more with Southeast Asian countries to crack down on these criminal activities, it remains to be seen how successful those efforts will be. In the case of Cambodia, international law enforcement actions so far have been obstructed by alleged corruption on the ground, according to a recent investigation by the New York Times.

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