Inside pig butchering, the new online romance scam sweeping the UK

By Emma O'Regan-Reidy

Published Mar 5, 2023 at 09:15 AM

Reading time: 3 minutes

Have you been receiving a lot of dodgy phone calls recently? An influx of weird WhatsApp messages? Or maybe even a match on Hinge who just seems a little off but you can’t quite put your finger on why?

As we’ve become increasingly infatuated with the world of con artists over the past few years, scams which pull at our heartstrings—and often our purses—only seem to be becoming more ubiquitous. And while those annoying messages in your inbox or your DMs may not seem as exciting as those in a four-part Netflix series, the planning behind them probably is.

You may not have heard of it (yet), but “pig butchering” is the newest iteration in a long line of online romance scams. According to The Guardian, the name is derived from the Chinese term “sha zhu pan,” which refers to fattening up a pig to get it ready for butchering. As its name implies, the scam slowly draws victims in and gains their trust over time, resulting in a large, devastating payout at the end of the relationship.

So, how does pig butchering differ from other online romance scams out there? At first glance, it may seem formulaic—a person meets another on the internet, they build a connection, they get scammed. But, according to the Global Anti-Scam Organization (GASO), this simply isn’t the case.

The four ways this highly unfortunately-named con deviates from the norm are its psychological and technical sophistication, its quickness to evolve, the involved element of grooming, and the massive sums of money lost by victims.

The GASO notes that pig butchering victims who have approached them for help “have an average financial loss of $169,000.” What’s more, while other scams are confined to a single digital medium (we’re talking emails or phone calls), those carrying out pig butchering “can literally be everywhere you are,” the GASO has previously stated.

They may be a mutual connection who’s started chatting to you on LinkedIn, a wrong number text on WhatsApp that keeps the conversation going, a new love interest on Hinge who subtly brings up crypto, or even a Redditor from your favourite sub that you’ve started DMing. You simply never know.

And, just because you’ve watched all of Inventing Anna and The Tinder Swindler, or have loyally listened to podcasts The Dropout and Sweet Bobby, doesn’t mean that you’re immune to becoming a victim of this con.

This sophisticated scam is highly calculated and can affect any demographic. Scammers tend to target individuals who have college and graduate degrees, as well as those who live in expensive areas, like Los Angeles or New York City, the GASO stated, but victims ultimately come from a diverse variety of backgrounds. Plus, thanks to neural machine translation services like Google Translate and DeepL Translate, scammers can communicate in almost any language.

Perhaps the most nuanced aspect of pig butchering scams is the fact that a crypto investment angle is normally heavily involved. After building a victim’s trust, scammers begin slowly working cryptocurrency into the conversation—which wouldn’t seem too out of place for your average 20- or 30-something today, although in this case, the results are far more sinister.

Over time, the swindler encourages their victim to invest small increments into their so-called “preferred” crypto platform or wallet. Once the money goes through, the scammer tends to add money to the wallet to make it seem like they’ve earned on their investment, encouraging the victim to invest more and buy into the scheme (quite literally). Then, once a significant amount is sent over, or the relationship shows signs of heading south, the pig butcher drains the account and disappears.

A key element underpinning the workings of pig butchering scams is convincing tech-savvy victims that the crypto wallet or platform that they’re being introduced to is legitimate. To achieve this, “criminal groups set up real companies that they can then refer to on their scam websites, creating a veneer of legitimacy,” as stated in The Guardian investigation.

Over three months, the reporters “identified 168 such companies registered via Companies House—the UK’s official business registry—which were used to defraud victims” out of millions of pounds. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, these syndicates use the UK as a “virtual base” for operations while exploiting lax regulations to conduct fraud on an industrial scale.”

Another important detail propping up pig butchering scams is that those sending the messages and building relationships with victims are often victims of online scams themselves. Cezary Podkul and Cindy Liu of ProPublica reported in September 2022 that tens of thousands of people throughout Southeast Asia have been lured to countries like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar by the promise of better job opportunities via online ads.

But, once these victims arrive, they’re unable to leave and are forced to work “where Chinese criminal syndicates have set up cyber fraud operations,” explained Podkul and Liu. One former victim coerced into carrying out pig butchering schemes revealed to the nonprofit organisation that he worked on a team of eight under a manager, and was given ten phones to keep multiple conversations going.

The GASO added that most of these human trafficking victims are “required to start conversations with anywhere from two to eight people per day depending on the scam company.” The level of criminal organisation behind pig butchering makes it easy to see why so many in the UK and elsewhere are becoming victims on a daily basis.

Many who have fallen prey to this scam often feel ashamed, and since the network behind the fraudulent activity is so vast and global, it makes it extremely difficult to prosecute those who’ve committed the crime.

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