21 January 2024, 9:08am
Pig butchering scam targeting Australians as AFP warns lonely hearts to be wary this Valentine’s Day
The AFP is warning that a manipulative and costly financial scam called pig butchering, also known as romance baiting, is targeting Australians with the promise of friendship and financial windfalls.
The AFP is also cautioning lonely hearts to be wary of organised criminals this Valentine’s Day as statistics show Australians lost up to $4500 every hour to romance scammers in 2022 and up to $3800 every hour in 2023.
Acting Assistant Commissioner Cybercrime Command Chris Goldsmid said the AFP was, for the first time, releasing details from a seized pig butchering how-to manual to further inform the community what tactics conmen and women were using to target multicultural communities and the wider public.
Pig butchering, also known as romance baiting and Sha Zhu Pan, is a scam in which offenders often devote long periods of time to gain the trust of victims before encouraging them to invest in the share market, cryptocurrency or foreign currency exchanges.
Victims think they are trading on legitimate platforms but the money is actually siphoned into an account owned by offenders who created fake platforms that look identical to well-known sites.
Acting Assistant Commissioner Goldsmid said traditional romance scams were often initiated on dating apps but pig butchering often started with cold texting individuals on messaging apps.
“Pig butchering does not target individuals with the false hope of a relationship but instead initiates a conversation looking for friendship,’’ Assistant Commissioner Goldsmid said.
“Scammers usually say the accidental messages are because of ‘fate’ or ‘divine will’.
“Over the course of months or years, the scammer will flaunt a lavish lifestyle and leave a trail of comments about their wealth, such as bragging about the value in their cryptocurrency wallets.
“Once victims ask how they are making their money, victims are directed to a complete replica of an investment site that shows the growth of an investment.
“When the victim sends money to invest, victims are provided weekly, month or yearly investment statements, that show continual growth in their investment. Often the victim provides even more money to invest.
“When the victim wants to cash out or the scammer believes there no more money to scam out of the victim, the offender tries one more time to get money by saying things like, ‘taxes need to be paid but I know a great accountant’, or ‘we are all meeting at a luxurious resort for our AGM, our travel agent can book for you, just provide them the cash for the airfares and accommodation’.
“However, before it gets to that point, a lot of hard work goes into grooming the victim – and these are the signs we want the community to be aware of.”
Acting Assistant Commissioner Goldsmid said the pig butchering manual had four key steps – packaging, raising, killing/investment scam and cash out.
There are different manuals that tailored for age, gender, sexual preference and geography.
In order to package a victim, the manual instructs offenders to connect with the victim using nine topics of conversation so they can form a connection. Offenders should say they are 28-35 years old, show they understand pop culture and are educated or have good paying jobs.
The offenders are urged not to make up a hobby they don’t understand, because it could create doubts in the victims’ minds.
Offenders take on a persona, including good looking, usually Asian man or woman, wealthy, usually a successful business owner or investor, who has investments in cryptocurrency, share market or in gold. They are looking for friendship, but are too busy to meet but will in the future.
They greet their victims every morning and reach out every night, may confess their love within two weeks and use pet names for the victims, like “baby” or “wife”. They talk a lot about chance and fate, tell their victims they are not dreaming big enough but now they can dream together; and want to exchange “naughty” pictures. Offenders generally move to psychological manipulation, and tell victims they need to face pressure in the lives, tell them not to miss opportunities and tell them to fantasize about their dream life.
Over time, the offender shows off their wealth and talks about the things they buy and where they travel. When the victim asks how they can do the same, the offender directs them to a replica of an investment site, which simulates the growth of investment funds. The victim “invests” and are shown how their investment is growing – when in fact it is fake and the money is in the hands of the offender.
Victims are often informed of a limited-time bonus, or an overnight or couples’ package with a high-minimum deposit. To help victims make the minimum payment, the offender or the platform will “loan’ victims money. After $5000-$10,000 thresholds are reached, victims are told they can no longer withdraw their money because of extra verification fees or taxes are needed. When the victim complains, the offender often guilts the victim. The offender may say they are in the same boat and in their experience, when they pay the extra fees and taxes, they get their money. They may encourage victims into borrowing from family and friends, selling assets or getting loans to pay the so-called fees. If the victim refuses, the offender may threaten them with exposing the intimate images provided.
When the victim refuses to invest more or wants to cash out, or after a period of time, the offender will move to cash out of the scam.
Acting Assistant Commissioner Goldsmid said the AFP was concerned that some members of the public were too embarrassed to inform authorities if they had been scammed.
“We know some members of the community are not coming forward if they have been scammed.
“My message is don’t be embarrassed. Alert your authorities, and think about telling your friends, family or community what happened. The more others know about these unscrupulous scammers the harder it will be for them to target others.”
He said some romance scammers may also use Valentine’s Day as a promise of a first official date or meeting, especially if they have asked victims for money.
“There was a reported reduction in losses from romance scams last year compared to 2022, and that in part can be attributed to increased community awareness, and banks, industry and regulators working together to protect the public,’’ Acting Assistant Commissioner Goldsmid said.
“The National Anti-Scam Centre is working closely with the AFP so we can supercharge our efforts in protecting the public but also doing all we can bring offenders to justice.
“And that’s why today we are urging people to be extra conscientious in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day.
“And that includes being mindful if they are being love bombed – where an individual is lavished with excessive attention in a bid to make the recipient feel obligated to their love interest, who then often asks for money.”
He said while financial gain was the motivation for most scammers, some criminals had convinced some Australians to open bank accounts to enable money laundering or traffic illicit drugs.
“Organised crime gangs are manipulating Australians to send money offshore, which could be bankrolling other serious crime.
“The latest Scamwatch data shows $40 million was lost in romance scams alone in 2022, equating to up to $109,000 a day or an eye-watering $4500 an hour.
“That is $3 million more than 2021 but the AFP believes the figure is much higher because many victims are too embarrassed to reveal they have lost money in a romance scam.
“If you believe you are a victim of cybercrime, report it to ReportCyber. If there is an imminent threat to your safety, call Triple Zero.”