Online ‘pig butchering’ love scams have gone global after getting their start in China
- The scam involves building a relationship, often romantic, with a victim before convincing them to make a fraudulent investment
- Victims are often well-educated women and the amount of money stolen tends to be significant
A scamming strategy called “pig butchering” that started in China is spreading beyond both border and language, transforming into a global fraud racket.
According to the Global Anti-Scam Organisation, a volunteer-led advocacy group, the primary victims of the scheme outside China are Chinese nationals or ethnically Chinese people living in Southeast Asia. But more than a third of the duped people were non-Chinese people in North America and Asia, showing how the demographic targeted is rapidly expanding.
Called sha zhu pan in Chinese, or “pig butchering” in English, the scam involves the perpetrator building a relationship, often romantic but not always, with the victim over months, akin to fattening the pig, before convincing them to invest money into a fake venture, slaughtering the animal.
The losses were often significant, averaging US$98,000 based on 240 victims surveyed by the Global Anti-Scam Organisation. About 70 per cent of the victims were women.
Unlike traditional romance scams, most of those who fell for “pig-butchering” scams were people in their 20s and 30s who have a decent education, with nearly 90 per cent of them holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.
“The immense scale, professional training, and organised operation behind each scam are astonishingly sophisticated,” the authors wrote in the report.
“The most successful perpetrators are irresistible online conversationalists who are incredibly well-versed about life and finances in the cities and countries they target.”
The scam left about a third of the victims in debt, and over 40 per cent lost more than half of their net worth, the report said.
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The group said such scams became common in North America in late 2020.
“It far too often destroys the lives of people who had bright futures at the prime of their careers – draining bank accounts, breaking families, straining marriages, derailing life goals and triggering suicides,” it said in a press release.
A Taiwanese victim of the scam started the Global Anti-Scam Organisation in 2019.
Pig butchering was first reported in China in the early 2010s, but it spread like wildfire after 2018 because Chinese scammers took advantage of ethnically Chinese people interested in the gambling industry in Southeast Asia.
Casino gambling is illegal in China, except in the Macau special administrative region. Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Cambodia and Singapore became attractive gambling destinations for Chinese nationals.
In the Philippines, gambling websites called POGOs (Philippines Offshore Gaming Operators) target Chinese nationals gambling online and have become big business, and a headache for Filipino authorities.
Sophisticated fake corporate operations, largely made up of people of Chinese descent, targeted these Chinese nationals by asking them to place bets on their fake website, where they would never receive any payout for their “winnings”.
The demographic has expanded in recent years and the scams are no longer confined to online gaming platforms or Chinese nationals.
There is no official data on the number of pig butchering scams busted in China each year, but figures from some local governments suggest they are rampant.
Last week, Beijing police busted an 18-person gang based in Myanmar who tricked more than 50 victims across China out of nearly 10 million yuan (US$1.55 million), according to Beijing Daily.
Last year in Changsha, the capital city of central China’s Hunan province, police busted 270 separate online scams that stole over 500,000 yuan (US$77,300). Half of them were love-investment scams, the city’s public security bureau said in January.
According to the report, the cases are difficult for police to prosecute, partly because scammers have leveraged the anonymity and lack of jurisdiction provided by cryptocurrencies.
“The scammers would not have been so successful without the technology and services of the digital ecosystem, yet victims and their immediate families are left to bear the entire costs of the scam and resulting debts to banks, lending agencies and loan sharks.”
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