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What are pig butchering scams?

NetworkTigers discusses pig butchering scams and how to avoid becoming a victim.

Pig butchering scams damage victims on both a personal and financial level. Pig butchering attacks are a type of cryptocurrency scam where fraudsters use fake social media profiles or messaging apps to offer to sell a cryptocurrency at a price lower than the market value to potential buyers.

The scammer convinces the victim to transfer their funds to a wallet address, promising to send the cryptocurrency in return. However, after the funds are transferred, the scammer disappears, and the promised cryptocurrency is never delivered.

The name “pig butchering” refers to the method scammers use to make their illegitimate gains look legitimate. They transfer the funds to a series of different wallets, splitting the amount into smaller portions each time to hide their tracks and make it difficult to trace the funds. This process is likened to butchering a pig into smaller pieces.

These attacks appear to have started in China in late 2019 and gained their unusual name because of the Chinese phrase shā zhū piánjú, which roughly translates to “pig butchering.”

Individual criminals and organized criminal enterprises rake in billions of dollars annually by exploiting unsuspecting victims. Phishing attacks, malware-laced emails, and even voice calls target victims, most initiated or supplemented by social engineering.

Pig butchering scams explained

Pig butchering attacks target individuals and play the long game, interacting directly and consistently with their victims to rope them into cryptocurrency scams. 

While anyone can be on the receiving end of a scam, pig butchers deliberately target those who they perceive to be vulnerable. People who are elderly, disabled, or otherwise deemed to be easy pickings are routinely attacked. Pig butchers do not hesitate to seek targets who appear lonely, easily manipulated, or suffering from financial or health-related hardship. Although, even those who know better can find themselves fooled.

Unlike many other scams or cyberattacks, pig butchering involves a great deal of interaction between the victim and the perpetrator. This methodology flies in the face of tried and true in-and-out scams with very little communication between parties after the initial profit. Chinese crime syndicates have developed scripts for hackers to follow that they have tested for effectiveness.

In an additional distressing twist to the operation, criminal operations use laborers to simultaneously engage with hundreds of people. Many of the scammers are victims themselves, trafficked and forced into the role. While the Chinese government has been cracking down on crypto scammers, criminal enterprises have remained effective by moving their operations to nearby countries such as Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia.

How pig butchering scams work

Step 1: Initiation

The scammer reaches out to a victim via SMS, social media or a direct message in a dating app. This could be a message that implies romantic interest or, often in the case of SMS-based scams, a pleasantly worded text that indicates a wrong number has been dialed. Regardless of the platform used to start a conversation, the goal is to get the intended target to respond.

Step 2: Engagement and trust building

Once the scammer has initiated a conversation, they work to build trust and rapport with the victim. For the scam to succeed, the attacker must become the victim’s perceived friend or lover. Because of this, pig butchering requires finesse and is typically undertaken by criminals who understand the victim’s native language.

When the attacker feels they have built a decent relationship with the victim, they move on to the next scam phase.

Step 3: Setting the trap

At this point in the scam, the attacker casually mentions to the victim that they have been making a large amount of money via crypto investments or trading. They encourage the victim to get involved and combine their newfound trust with a sense of urgency by saying that the opportunity to make good returns is fleeting.

The victim is given a link to a malicious site or platform through which they are to deposit their money. These platforms are expertly designed to shine with legitimacy or even impersonate legitimate financial institutions. They are often peppered with data about crypto investment and may include charts, graphs and tickers that purport to show real-time market activity, always in the victim’s favor. 

Once a victim deposits money into their account on the platform, they can see their returns grow. The goal is to get them to “invest” and inject more and more of their cash into the platform as the attacker continues conversation and encouragement. 

To lend further legitimacy to the scam, victims can video-call their newfound partner and even withdraw small amounts of money from the fraudulent account (often with so-called fees attached).

Step 4: cut and run

The scammer’s end game is to extract as much money from their victim as possible. When they are satisfied with the amount or the victim begins to doubt them, they shut down the account, cease conversation and disappear. Victims have no way to retrieve the money they deposited and can no longer contact the attacker.

How to spot pig butchering scams

The only real defense against pig butchering scams is spotting one and not becoming a victim. Here are some telltale characteristics to watch out for:

Wrong number texts

If you receive a text that appears to be intended for someone else, your best move is to ignore it and block the sender. Pig butchers sometimes attempt to tug on the heartstrings of victims by using language in the text that implies they’re reaching out to someone after a funeral or traumatic event. For example, a text may read, “So sorry about all that happened yesterday. Are you feeling alright?”

Promises of quick money or requests for financial help

No investments offer guaranteed returns, and random strangers purporting to have insider knowledge on making fast money should be blocked. Report the user immediately if you receive such correspondence via a social media or messaging platform.

Attackers may also ask for money to pay for medical expenses for themselves or a family member. Never send money to someone you haven’t met.

Big gifts at high speed

While slow and steady wins the race for most pig butchering schemes, the goal remains to get the job done as swiftly as possible. Some scammers may come on too strong by offering extravagant gifts or making big promises that seem out of touch with the relationship stage. 

Collaborative trades

Scammers sometimes trade money with victims to demonstrate how their platform or the investment process works. They may also do this to imply the safety of the investment further. Cash amounts may be small initially but grow over time as victims let their guard down. These cash movements may also carry “transaction charges” or “taxes,” which are just excuses for the attacker to pull in more money.

Never trust a stranger online. Be wary of anyone sending you a link to an app, website or platform, even if it appears legitimate. Criminals sometimes use URLs that mimic those belonging to real institutions, with only a tiny change indicating that it is fake.

Derek Walborn
Derek Walborn
Derek Walborn is a freelance research-based technical writer. He has worked as a content QA analyst for AT&T and Pernod Ricard.

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What are pig butchering scams?