Who doesn’t want to have a better life? It is this premise that drives the coup called “pig butchering” (the “slaughter of the pig”, in free translation).
Scammers first go to social media in search of the next victim to be deceived. They then introduce themselves, for example, as the partner she always wanted or the brother she never had, and then start talking about investments.
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This is a relatively new long-term financial scam. In it, the victims – who the scammers call “pigs” – are “slaughtered” after suffering strong emotional manipulation. They are convinced to invest large amounts in supposed trading platforms, conducted with cryptocurrencies.
“The methodology is new, but it uses the same characteristics as love scams,” according to Luis Orellana, a specialist at the Chilean Investigative Police (PDI) and executive secretary of the network to fight cybercrime in Europe and Latin America (Cibela).
“The difference in this crime is the time dedicated by criminals to ‘fatten up’ the victim before ‘killing’ them when they get the investment. It is mainly related to investments with cryptocurrencies or virtual currencies”, says Orellana.
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How is the blow applied?
It all starts with an innocent message by Whatsapp or some social network – something like “hello, I have you on my contact numbers, looks like we met somewhere” or a supposed mistake, “oh sorry I got it wrong” – or through dating platforms like Tinder where they captivate the victim with attractive photos.
The first contact appears as something casual — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
“They make everything seem normal and, when they manage to start the conversation, they start talking about life, tastes, etc.”, Orellana details. “Conversations become commonplace and always through instant messengers. They never speak on the phone.”
Together with Cibela, Orellana is part of the assistance program against international organized crime between Europe and Latin America, known in Spanish as El PAcCTO.
Victims are patiently “prepared” for weeks. They present themselves, for example, as that person who offers the support you were looking for.
“That’s how they gain her trust to finally manipulate her against herself. All of this generates great emotional manipulation”, explains to BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish service, Grace Yuen, from Gaso, an international fighting organization. against this type of scam.
Once they have established a strong bond of trust, scammers do not ask for money directly, but instead present victims with a fake investment website or app where victims feel safe to deposit money.
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The shift in investment direction
“They take as much time as necessary,” according to Orellana. “After creating bonds of trust, the second stage begins, when they start talking about investments and the profits they offer.”
“We have had cases in Chile where they talk about privileged information about an alleged uncle or cousin who works at a cryptocurrency investment bank and comment on its high profitability,” he reports.
Victims lose, on average, US$ 121,926 (about R$ 634,000), according to figures recorded by the international organization Gaso — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
“All people want to have a better life and give money to whoever they believe can help make it grow,” explains Yuen. “Criminals say they want to help people provide a better life for their families. This sort of thing makes them fall for it and invest their fortunes on the platforms.”
The scammers remove any suspicion that their victims may have, making them believe that it will be a joint investment, that is, if the investment is US$ 20 thousand, each of them will invest half, for example.
Little by little, they will indicate how to invest larger and larger amounts of money, with a series of psychological techniques and tricks on the website or application controlled by them, which shows supposed profits from their investments. These are apps or websites similar to the original ones, but in this case, they are fake and controlled by criminals at all times.
“We had people in Chile who started with small investments and then ended up borrowing money, using money from their pensions… the problem arises when they want to withdraw part of the profits”, says Orellana.
“Many of these scams are related to dating pages. Especially during the pandemic, this type of platform was very common,” according to Yuen.
“But not all scams are just romantic. We’re now seeing a lot of victims who met the criminals on Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn – that’s to say the big ones, but really, they use any social network,” she adds.
Contrary to what one might think, many of the victims of this scam are educated people and even financially savvy.
“About 80% or more of victims have university degrees and a large proportion have a master’s or doctorate,” according to Yuen.
“The victims come from all walks of life: from nurses and lawyers to computer specialists and telecommunications engineers. They are all highly educated people, typically 24 to over 40 years of age. And now we are also looking at older victims.” she details.
Scammers maintain a script that is tailored to people of any age. Anyone can be the target of this coup that started in China at the end of 2019, but spread across the world in the following years, especially in the United States.
“Anyone can be subject to this scam,” says Yuen. She also indicates that there are victims in Latin America, although the scammers mainly focus on regions where they think there may be a higher volume of money, such as California, in the United States, where salaries are very high.
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They seek to maximize their profits. “Many victims in California come to us, for example, because they easily lost a million dollars in this scam”, explains the spokeswoman for the organization Gaso, created in 2021 by a woman who was a victim of this type of fraud.
“But of course there are also victims in South America [e em outras regiões]. We know people from Peru, Brazil and Spain, for example, who were deceived. It’s nothing unusual,” she adds.
This victim profile exists in all countries. “We have received complaints from people with studies and digital knowledge, in addition to others who work in the financial area. And also retirees, who invest their pensions. There are all kinds of people”, says Orellana, about the profile of victims in Chile.
How are they selected?
Criminals know how to make excellent use of social networks to choose their potential victims. But the most useful tool for them is LinkedIn.
“There’s great information there for the scammers,” says Yuen. “They know your level of education, which says a lot. If you went to a reputable university, there’s a good chance you’re making a lot of money. Likewise, if you work for a world-renowned company.”
“They can also calculate your age from your graduation date and see how many years you’ve been working in a given industry. They’ll start normal conversations, asking how many years you’ve worked in the tech industry, for example. Conversations that may arise when you meet someone at a party. All this is for them to see if you’re a good target and if you’re worth investing time in,” Yuen explains.
In 2021, the FBI’s Internet Crime Reporting Center received more than 4,300 reports related to “pig butchering”, totaling more than $429 million in damages.
It is very difficult to recover money in this type of fraud as the withdrawal takes place immediately the moment the amount is received. And usually, the victim sent the amounts a long time ago and the trace of the money has already been lost.
Around 2,000 people have filed complaints through Gaso since mid-2021 and the average loss of this type of scam is US$ 173 thousand (about R$ 900 thousand) per victim.
The organization acknowledges that “this is just the tip of the iceberg” of a coup that is often operated in centers located in Asia. And in some cases, as in countries like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, coup plotters are also victims of human trafficking.
Among its complaints, Gaso has cases such as that of a woman in her 60s, found by a scammer on LinkedIn.
“The criminal’s profile reminded her of her son,” Yuen reports. She was also an immigrant. She had left China and moved to the United States many decades ago and identified with the story of the young man who had just moved from China to the US four years earlier and was still suffering from culture shocks.”
“Her maternal instincts were awakened and projected onto the scammer. And he convinced her to invest over a million dollars [cerca de R$ 5,2 milhões] across the platform,” she continues.
“There are many tragic stories, like a woman who was divorced and invested all her savings in a platform,” says Yuen. “We have many widowed or divorced women, prepared to go on with their lives, who have been used by criminals.”
Scams in Latin America
In the case of Latin America, although it is difficult to obtain exact data on the total number of people affected, Cibela measured the results of the information campaign of the El PAcCTO assistance program over 60 days.
In all, there were 298 complaints related to cryptocurrency scams. Among the most affected countries is Chile, followed by Ecuador, Argentina and Colombia..
According to the study, 65% of pig butchering victims were men and 35% were women. The largest group was people between 30 and 50 years of age and lost values ranged from US$ 200 to US$ 150 thousand (about R$ 1 thousand to R$ 780 thousand).
“In Chile, we had the case of a person who was injured in US$ 150 thousand [cerca de R$ 780 mil]”, according to Orellana. And sometimes the same victims can be the target of new blows.
“We had the case of a person who suffered a cryptocurrency scam through a fake website,” recalls Orellana. “Four months later, she received a message from an American law firm, saying that the website that had stolen her is being investigated in the United States, that they were preparing a class action and wanted to know if she would like to be a part.”
“So far, they haven’t asked for money, they just asked if I would agree,” he said. “After a while, they said that the action was still being processed and that only at the end they would charge a percentage of the money recovered. But, in the meantime, they asked for money from an expert and, with that, the person suffered a new blow.”
Orellana insists on the old maxim of “never believe or trust people you don’t know”.
The FBI summarizes its guidance in five points:
- Never send money, trade, or invest based on the advice of someone you’ve only met on the internet;
- Do not discuss your current financial situation with people you don’t know and trust;
- Do not give your bank details, document numbers, copies of ID or passport documents and any other personal information to anyone online or to a website that you do not know is legitimate;
- If an investment or online trading site promotes seemingly impossible benefits, chances are they are just that: impossible;
- Beware of people who claim to have unique investment opportunities and insist that you must act quickly.
– This text was published at https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/geral-63205345