‘Pig butchering’ is a money investment scam that begins as a love affair. This consists of taking the initiative and contacting a third party to offer something and arouse interest from the other party. They are not only phone calls, but through emails and messaging apps. In some types of online fraud these contacts can start with something as innocent as a message that appears to have been sent in error. However, this “error” hides a malicious attempt.
Romance scams -which often begin in applications such as Tinder, messages that arrive through social media or on dating sites- caused US$1.3 billion in losses in the United States in 2022. Almost 70,000 people reported having been victims of this type of fraud with economic losses that averaged US$4,400. One particular victim lost up to $2.5 million after being tricked into investing in cryptocurrency. It should be noted that these figures do not fully measure the magnitude of the problem, since many victims do not file a complaint because they feel ashamed.
Camilo Gutiérrez, Head of the Research Laboratory of ESET Latin America assures that: “In recent years, scams that use direct messages as a way to establish a relationship with people have increased, to later deceive them in some way. These types of scams have been called Pig Butchering, which in Spanish translates as ‘slaughter of pigs’. The name comes from the practice of fattening a pig for the purpose of slaughtering it and consuming or selling the meat. In digital terms, the ‘meat’ would be money”.
Here are some examples of the tactics employed:
Hunting for money
Pig butchering scams rely on the combined use of apps, websites, web servers, and people (in many cases, victims of human trafficking) to build trust with a random third party over a period of weeks or months; often feigning romantic interest.
This form of fraud borrows some tactics used in other deception schemes that have proven effective, such as romance scams found on online dating apps and sites or on social media. Once they establish the trust link, what the cybercriminals do is introduce the subject of a possibility to invest money, which can be from cryptocurrencies, a pyramid scheme or another way that presents itself as an attractive opportunity, and in this way they give an unexpected twist to the conversations.
In this way, the scammer will begin to talk about an investment opportunity with which he obtained great profits and will invite the victim to participate. Many times victims end up taking the bait for fear of missing out on something good.
The false investment opportunity
Once the victim deposits money, the scammers will initially allow them to make withdrawals to make them believe it is legitimate. But then, a blockage in the account will force a deposit of a percentage of the investor’s balance to be made in order to regain access again. However, from ESET they explain that what happens is that after making the deposit, the scammers will invent new reasons for the victim to send more money and thus obtain everything they can until they disappear.
To some people, it may sound unlikely that someone would establish such a close relationship with a person she randomly met through a message that came out of the blue. However, despite the fact that many have already heard of love or romantic scams, the reality indicates that many people fall victim to this type of fraud.
Global reach scam
In 2021 alone, pig butchering scams caused US$429 million in losses. They are industrial scale scams involving thousands of people. The situation has become so serious that both the European Union and the United States have begun to focus more on this problem, investigating and prosecuting people suspected of carrying out this type of scam.
Today, online machine translators have reached a level of quality that makes it easy to create convincing scams in a variety of languages. Add to this the advent of new machine learning-based chatbots like ChatGPT, and scammers have more tools to generate even more persuasive messages and at a faster pace than ever before, perhaps opening the doors to even more global operations.
Avoid being a victim of ‘pig butchering’
• Beware of unsolicited messages, including those that appear to have been sent “by mistake”.
• Be skeptical. Do not trust someone you just met online just because they seem nice.
• Do not discuss your personal financial situation with strangers who have met online. Be especially wary of so-called investment opportunities that come along unsolicited.