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Sha Zhu Pan “pig butchering” scams – the modern-day cryptocurrency romance fraud

Posted on 17 May 2022

“Sha Zhu Pan” (殺豬盤) romance scams are the latest version of an old crime which preys on those looking for love to deceive them into sending money. This latest set of tricks combines psychological deceptions with the use of fake apps and cryptocurrency to defraud their victims. While losses can be high, there are ways of investigating and acting against these schemes using cryptocurrency tracing and civil fraud recovery methods.

Old tricks in new ways

Romance scams involve victims being manipulated into parting with money in the mistaken belief that they are in genuine relationships. These kinds of scams are nothing new – during the Second World War, Swedish undertaker Gustaf Raskenstam seduced over 100 partners for financial gain. Like so many online frauds, the romance scam is an old crime committed using new techniques. In the modern day, this has evolved to mean the use of dating apps, fake online services and exploitation of cryptocurrency to receive the proceeds of crimes.

The online iteration of the romance scam can involve the fraudsters building impersonation profiles using stolen photographs and attempting to build trust with their victims by seeming genuine, caring and believable. In some instances, scammers will send love poems or use manipulating and emotive language to create an illusion of a loving relationship before beginning to request money for expenses, medical bills or education. In 2021 in the US, the FBI reported 24,000 victims had lost USD 1 billion to romance scams and that many more losses were unreported.

Sha Zhu Pan marks a new evolution

Now a newer version of the online romance scam, the “Sha Zhu Pan” has emerged from its origins in China. The Chinese “sha zhu pan” (殺豬盤) literally means “pig butchering” in English and involves fraudsters building a relationship with their victims, metaphorically fattening the pig before deceiving them into making investments in fake business ventures - the “butchering”. In contrast to more traditional online romance scams victims tend to be younger with high levels of education.

Typically, Sha Zhu Pan scammers use online dating apps and social media to groom their victims. Over time they introduce them to cryptocurrency, or other online financial services. Instead of requesting the victims pay them directly, the fraudsters will often introduce fake investment websites or apps and encourage them to make payments to these schemes in increasingly large amounts. The introduction of these third parties allays the victims’ suspicions, meaning they are more likely to give over money. Of course, the fake services are part of the conspiracy and under the control of the scammers. The schemes include fake investment websites and apps, fake brokers, fake cryptocurrency mining pools, or gambling.

A sophisticated ruse – a scam in four parts

The scams follow a familiar pattern, which often play out in four distinct phases:

  1. Presentation - scammers often present themselves as attractive, wealthy and successful businesspeople looking for a serious relationship and while they will freely share images, they avoid meeting or live video chats claiming they are too busy or too shy.
  2. Grooming - the scammers will move quickly to declare their love for their victims and communicate with them daily using affectionate terms, sometimes asking for intimate pictures. This then leads to introducing their victims to a third-party app or website, coaching them on how to buy cryptocurrency from an exchange and how to send it to the “platform,” often offering to lend them money and encouraging victims to invite friends and family.
  3. Pressure tactics - the scammers start to increase the pressure on their victims to send more and more to the platform. Victims can be informed of a limited-time deal and the scammers will agree to help make a “loan” to the victim inside the platform to achieve the minimum amount required. Victims find their investments become stuck, devalue rapidly and that the scammers claim their investments are also stuck. The scammers may try to coach their victims to borrow more, using the threat of intimate pictures the victims have shared to coerce further payments.
  4. Cutting off - the final act of the deception involves the sharp turnaround in the sentiment from the scammer – this can involve accusing their victims of fraud, asking for further payments for late fees, tax or other fees. Finally, the scammers cut off their victims by blocking communications.

How to avoid becoming a victim

If you suspect an online relationship may be a romance scam, consider researching the person online to see if their images have been used elsewhere. Ensure you ask lots of questions of the person and try to obtain evidence that they are real. Warning signs include when a person promises to meet in person but then comes up with excuses as to why they had to drop out. Never send money, cryptocurrency or other forms of value to someone you have never met, regardless of the strength of your feeling towards them.

If you suspect your online relationship is a romance scam, immediately cease contact and make a complaint to law enforcement. In the United Kingdon, victims can report through Action Fraud.

Observations

Many of the tools and techniques used by law enforcement for tracing stolen cryptocurrency are also available to private investigators and law firms operating in the civil arena. If stolen crypto is traced into a customer account held at a third-party cryptocurrency exchange or service, it may be possible to obtain court-ordered disclosure from the third party. This can reveal the identity of the customer who received the funds and thereby help to expose the perpetrators of the fraud. It may also be possible to obtain an order freezing the account in question or the funds therein, pending recovery action. Pursuing civil remedies should be considered in the event of frauds and thefts involving cryptocurrencies.

Mishcon de Reya litigators and our investigations practice, MDR Cyber, frequently use tracing techniques to chase the money from frauds, thefts and hacks and work together to secure legal orders to compel disclosure of information, freezing of funds and recover losses on behalf of our clients. For more information contact mdrcyber@mishcon.com.

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