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Pig butchering: New scam targets vulnerable with just one text message

"Unsolicited contact. Have you ever gotten a text message that just reads, 'Hi,' from an unknown number?"

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — "She got in touch with me [on] LinkedIn," said Kevin. "Saying that she was a Chinese lady here in the States. She wanted information about America and Western civilization... we basically chatted daily."

One message sparked a friendship that spanned months. But as the weeks went on, Kevin continued to wonder one question, was she real?

Concerned about retaliation, our source didn't want to share his identity but wanted to tell his story. We've given him the pseudonym, Kevin.

"She asked after a day or so on LinkedIn if we could switch to WhatsApp," said Kevin.

He and Cheng Yan began talking in January 2023. He was cautious but intrigued.

"There was always that tingling in the back of my mind that there's something not right here," said Kevin. "But it was pretty harmless what we were doing at that time."

The more they talked, the more he learned. 

"She had come here supposedly after she'd been divorced," said Kevin.

Cheng told him she lived in the Pacific Heights area of San Francisco and was a financial trader with "gold trading futures." It's how she paid for her lavish lifestyle.

"She was showing me her house and her clothes and her material goods," said Kevin. "So, at that point, I was thinking, 'Well why would a wealthy person be wanting to scam me?'"

His trust grew as their communication moved to voice memos and then to a couple of FaceTime calls.

"That was very convincing. And after that she then started progressing more towards the investments," said Kevin. "I actually asked her about how she was doing investments, and she offered to teach me. I said, 'Oh sure, I'd love to learn.'"

She claimed to know when to buy crypto to make a profit due to an uncle who had "insider trading information." 

Kevin had no experience with cryptocurrency. She spent hours showing him how to sign up and invest in crypto through detailed instructions.

Credit: Kevin
Photos Cheng sent to Kevin had laid out instructions, including arrows, directing him how to buy and invest cryptocurrency.

"She was suggesting I only do a minimum amount so I feel comfortable," said Kevin. "At this point, I'm like, I'll risk $1700 and we'll see what happens."

While texting, they watched the market.

"Value goes up, value goes up and at a certain point she tells me, 'Now buy,'" said Kevin. "I clicked the buy button and ended up making a $388 profit."

A few days later her uncle got another "tip." Kevin said he'd invest another $1700.

"She came back and said, 'Oh, isn't there supposed to be a zero on the end of that?'" Kevin recalled. "I said, '$17,000?! No way. Are you crazy?'"

She got upset, telling him he was "not taking risks and nobody gets anywhere in life without taking risks."

Kevin's trust dwindled as she applied more and more pressure.

"At that point, I'm thinking... well maybe I go to the FBI," Kevin said.

He never ended up going to the FBI, but ABC10 did.

In the world of cyber and counter-terrorism, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jamil Hassani has worked every threat that cyber has to offer.

"My niche... is hacking the mind of a hacker," said Hassani.

He's seen it all. But in 2021, he began seeing a new scam: Pig butchering.

"It just refers to raising little piglets, fattening them up and butchering them," said Hassani. "They're fattening up their victim with illusions of grandeur, of wealth, of love before bleeding them dry."

Pig butchering, or what the FBI has kindly coined "confidence scams," is a combination of two popular cons.

"The two main scams are investment scams and romance scams," said Hassani. "Sometimes they come together."

Pig butchering starts long before you may think.

"With technology where we are today, all our information is out there," said Hassani. "Criminals harvest this information. So, before they make contact they typically know quite a bit about the person."

Including someone's vulnerabilities.

"If I find out you're a religious person, I can exploit your faith," said Hassani. "Once you start getting suspicious of me, I can use God as an example of, 'Hey God brought us together. I don't know why you're resisting.'"

The sick and lonely are also targets.

"If you have cancer, I can pose as somebody who has cancer," said Hassani.

Then, they reach out.

"Unsolicited contact. Have you ever gotten a text message that just reads, 'Hi,' from an unknown number?" Hassani explained.

LinkedIn, dating apps, text messages, and more are all ways scammers make contact. And once you respond, they stay in touch.

"Pig butchering is a long game," said Hassani. "The idea is to cultivate trust which takes time."

During that time, the scammer often does exactly what Kevin saw.

"They usually start with a direct message and then move to WhatsApp because they want to get off that site," said Hassani. "They don't want the FBI to subpoena those records."

Messages on the app, WhatsApp, are encrypted, he explained.

"So even if we subpoena WhatsApp, all we can really see is their contact information," said Hassani.

The scammer typically poses as someone wealthy who knows finance and can teach you how to invest.

"A big part of this scam is using crypto," said Hassani. "It's a way for the bad guys to launder money and get it overseas quickly."

They get the crypto cash by directing the victim to move it.

"I then have you send it to another wallet, then to another wallet, and then to another wallet," said Hassani. "That last wallet would be mine."

So, who are these scammers really? The FBI said it's not just one person — it's organized crime.

"It's multiple rings. And a lot of times the scammers, believe it or not, are victims themselves," said Hassani. "They apply for a job. They'll be in China, for example, and apply for a job in Cambodia. It's all exciting and then they show up and it's this ring. And they're stuck. They're given a script and they're told (that) they're going to do it."

It's a full-time job. Kevin said the layers and level of detail he learned about Cheng were astounding.

"They must have worked hours and hours on this story," said Kevin.

Luckily, he caught on just in time.

"I did call her out," said Kevin. "I said, 'I think you're scamming me.'"

He never invested more money, now he's learned if he did... he likely would've lost it.

"What they do is they get you to invest a small sum, they get your confidence up," said Kevin. "And then they take it from you the second time."

But could Cheng be real if he Facetimed with her?

"They will hire people to FaceTime," said Hassani. "They give them a brief on what to say."

Hiring look-alikes as well as using advanced face-changing AI software and two ways the FBI said scammers dupe their victims into Facetiming and believing the person they're talking to is real.

We gave Cheng's information to the FBI. A few weeks later, Kevin got a letter, warning him of the potential scam.

Others don't walk away so lucky. Special Agent Hassani said he's seen people give their life savings, millions, to these pig butcherers.

"Once they have the money, if they get all of it, they spend it," said Hassani. "And that's why it's crucial to report this as soon as a victim is even remotely suspicious."

You can report by going online to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

"This happens every day. It's a multi-billion dollar enterprise... it's going to continue," said Hassani. "Call us, report it, look out for indicators (like) unsolicited contact. Don't send money to somebody you haven't met in person, okay? And if you do, call us as soon as possible and we'll do everything we can to try and get your money back."

Even though Kevin walked away ahead of the game, he's sharing his story in hopes others become weary of this scam.

"Don't even mess with them," Kevin said. "They need to learn that they just can't take money from everybody. And that we're onto them."

Watch more on ABC10

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