“Pig Butchering”, as it’s known, sounds both brutal and deeply unpleasant. And although this has nothing to do with abattoirs, it still is both of those things because it represents a new way to utterly and cynically destroy people’s lives.
Both the name and the fraud practice it describes originate in China, which is the world’s biggest market for pork – so it was probably an obvious metaphor. Shāzhūpán, as the scam is known there, gets its name because of the way the intended victim of a scam is ‘fattened up’ over time.
This isn’t just a quick raid on a bank account enabled by someone naively revealing their PIN. Instead it’s a complex and sustained process in which the victim is groomed over a prolonged period in order to ensure that at the moment the scam itself is finally worked – when the metaphorical butchery happens – they can be taken for the maximum amount.
In practice this can happen in more than one way.
The most prevalent in the rash of new cases begins with an apparently misdirected text or WhatsApp message. The recipient doesn’t know the number, but it seems to know them. “Great to see you last week – let’s do it again soon,” it will say. Or it’ll actually be plain that it’s meant for someone else: “Jamie – it’s been too long! Let’s meet up…”.
The scammers will send tens of thousands of these, ignoring those who ignore them but responding solicitously to any who are naive enough to answer. Even something as straightforward as: “Sorry I think you’ve sent this to the wrong person” can provide enough of a foot-in-the-door to instigate the grooming process. The scammer will reply in the same friendly tone as before: “Ah doh! Sorry to have wasted your time – and you must be busy?!” to try to draw out another response and to begin to build a dialogue.
And once that is established it’s then a question of increasing the familiarity and pseudo-friendliness to lure them in. The scammer will begin to drop hints about their successful lifestyle: they’re making a fortune on FX trading, or dealing crypto currencies, the returns are amazing. This will then lead on to the inevitable ‘you could have some of this too’ part of the process.
The fattening up starts in earnest now. They’ll be shown an app or web platform – often convincingly copied from genuine sites – where their new friend supposedly makes all this money. They’ll be shown what appears to be real time financial data that ‘proves’ this.
The butchers are big on detail and being convincing. They’ll often facetime their victim to make the relationship seem real. Sometimes they’ll even let their victims make some real money.
Because these butchers want everything: they want savings accounts, all assets liquidized, loans taken out and all that money in one pot before they strike. And in order to get the victim to comply they need them to believe they’re onto a winner.
The other form that the practice can takes is during romance fraud. And again, if they’re going to go to the trouble of building a relationship with their victim – in this case a pseudo-romantic relationship – then again the scammers want to take everything they can. “They want the whole pig right down to the ‘oink’”, as one observer put it.
But whether the new pal is a trader who’s kindly giving financial advice or a potential new boyfriend who is just in a spot of short-term financial bother, the outcome will be the same: once they have judged their victim has put the maximum possible amount of cash at their disposal they will take it, all of it, then shut down all channels of communication and simply disappear.
The syndrome began in China where it continues to proliferate despite attempted crackdowns by the authorities – and soon spread across Southeast Asia. And it’s now in the US – the FBI estimates some 20,000 people have been targeted there for some $1 billion in the last year – though it is still largely confined to those of Asian heritage.
The first known British case was reported in the media recently (Saturday 21 Jan) – an expat couple living in Spain lost nearly 1 million Euros sending their life savings to a supposed broker to invest in high yield bonds. Only it turned out the website they’d seen was a fake. They lost everything.
Victims tend to be vulnerable, often older people – that British couple were in their seventies – who have accrued savings worth targeting but who may also be lonely or cut off which makes them more likely to respond to friendly overtures. But the young can be affected too: one woman in the US was taken for $8 million while still in her twenties.
So how can we protect ourselves and our loved ones? How can we stop ourselves or our loved ones, in effect, from becoming the pig?
Well, what’s infuriating for my colleagues at TMT Analysis and me about all this is that it could be prevented very easily. The number that that initial “great to see you last night” message comes from – or the number that that new romantic interest is messaging you from – will instantly tell whether the sender is genuine or not.
Most people have the same relationship with their phone number as with their home address – or an even more lasting one. They keep it with them. They guard it jealously.
Using telecom data, we can see in a fraction of a second that phone number’s user history and what it’s connected to. And the phone numbers from the pig butchers? They’ll be burner phones with no history – an instant tell that the holder is a scammer.
So, if you have access to this kind of security service, for goodness sake use it: never take anyone at face value and check the number they are using every time.
If you don’t, then just keep reminding yourself – and your loved ones, especially older ones – that no one can be taken at face value online. Trust no one. It’s a grim fact but it’s better to be cynical than to be a victim.
CMO AND CO-FOUNDER
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