By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Connie Trinh’s (an alias) curiosity cost her $170,000.
A seemingly harmless online conversation with a stranger turned her into a victim in the Pig Butchering scam, named for the way the scammers build trust over time by feeding their victims with financial or romantic promises—fattening the pig. The empty promises soon turn into painful realization and shame when the scammers vanish with the victims’ money. It’s social engineering that tugs on heartstrings and purse strings.
“The scam is a variation on a theme, made easier with cryptocurrency,” said Jason Chan, former vice president of Information Security of Netflix and now a cybersecurity consultant.
Because of the ease of clicking a button, victims are losing large amounts of money in a short amount of time.
“Crypto enables all kinds of crime and scams. Anything originating online, you need to be careful with, especially with someone new,” Chan warned.
Trinh met someone new online in March. It seemed innocuous. A person named Li Wei or Levy complimented Trinh’s photograph of her and her friends on Instagram.
“Nice photo,” he said and followed with the question, “Do you know if God gives me one wish what would it be?”
Trinh said, “Normally people would be saying things like ‘You look beautiful’ or ‘How are you doing beautiful.’” Trinh ignored those comments.
This was different. She asked, “What is it?”
Immediately, Li told Trinh to switch their chat to the untraceable messaging app, WhatsApp.
Daily pleasantries and casual conversations turned into more personal ones. Li told Trinh he was from Singapore and wanted to learn about the U.S. He confided in her that his partner broke up with him. Trinh consoled him. Li claimed his parents lived in Thailand and him with his sister in Singapore, where they owned a design company.
Trinh checked out his company on Instagram. Although the information was very new, she thought it looked legitimate.
“There were so many red flags. But I was stupid, too,” Trinh blamed herself.
Li continued to groom Trinh. He told her his company was hard hit during the pandemic. He had to invest in cryptocurrency to ensure his employees got paid. Li was willing to teach Trinh how to invest. He wanted to help her become financially independent because she’s “so nice.” Trinh said she never expressed any financial hardship or being unhappy to Li.
“That’s why I am so upset at myself for even responding to a stranger. My life’s fulfilled. It’s fine. I didn’t even need money,” Trinh said.
But she wanted to learn about investing. Li claimed to have majored in global economics and had a respected professor who helped him understand and analyze investment data. Li advised Trinh to open a Coinbase account and download the platform MDTCOIN Exchange to start trading.
Coinbase is a legitimate cryptocurrency exchange that can be linked to bank accounts. MDTCOIN may be linked to Li’s bank account.
Trinh Googled MDTCOIN. There wasn’t much information online. Li told her the platform was new and only people with an invite would know about it. Trinh trusted Li.
“He was very dedicated in teaching me. He told me at first just to invest $500,” she said. She would send the money via Coinbase to “her account” at MDTCOIN. Only later did she learn that she was depositing the money straight into Li’s wallet.
Each day, based on Li’s analysis, they would buy low and sell high. The profit was 5% to 10%.
“It was very realistic,” Trinh said. “Someday, he would say, ‘The data’s not good. Let’s not trade today.”’
She was cautious and withdrew the money to test the system. The small withdrawal worked. She put in more money—$3,000 so far.
Li convinced Trinh to increase her investment. He also told her that MDTCOIN could broker a loan for her. There’s no telephone number for MDTCOIN Trinh could call. A customer service assistant helped her via chat. She borrowed $50,000 with a 21-day pay back.
Her account quickly grew to $250,000. Li told her not to share with her family, yet, and wait to withdraw the money. She withdrew $2,000 anyway. It worked. She was hooked.
To pay back the MDTCOIN loan, Trinh borrowed $30,000 from BECU, $10,000 from her mom, and $10,000 from her best friend. She had 30 days to pay back the credit union.
Li had good data on Bitcoin trading, which got a higher yield. He told Trinh she would need another $150,000 to deal in Bitcoin. She borrowed the money from MDTCOIN and had 15 days to pay that back. Meanwhile, her account was going up 5% to 15% each day.
To pay back the MDTCOIN loan, she borrowed $100,000 from three banks and some more from her friends. She deposited the money in her Coinbase account then transferred the money to her
MDTCOIN account. As soon as she paid off her MDTCOIN loan, Trinh saw her account go up to a million.
“I was pretty excited because I would be able to withdraw the money and pay everyone back,” Trinh said.
When it was close to the time to pay back her bank loans, Li told her to withdraw the money. She needed to pay a tax. MDTCOIN indicated Trinh owed about $170,000 in tax to the “International
Tax Bureau.” Li offered to help her with $50,000, but she would have to raise $120,000.
“He was still trying to get more money out of me,” Trinh said.
Trinh tried to find information on this tax bureau. Nothing. She confronted Li, who denied everything.
The pig was butchered.
She finally told her husband. “It affects the trust I have with my husband,” Trinh said. “He could smell a scam miles away.”
Trinh and her husband are paying off the loans with their savings and monthly payments. Life for their family of four is not as comfortable as before, and they’re careful with their spending. Their daughter’s future college expenses looms in the background.
Trinh wants the community to learn from her mistake.
“If it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true,” Trinh said. She knew that in her heart, but still fell for it.
Seattle FBI’s White-Collar Crime Supervisory Special Agent Tammy Mizer said, “You should never send money or ‘invest’ with people you’ve never met in person. Unfortunately, in many cases, the scammer is located overseas, which makes the investigation difficult.”
The FBI has presence in many foreign countries and works closely with their counterparts there.
“But we won’t have any chance of recovering the money if it’s not reported right away,” Mizer added.
Trinh has reported her loss via the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) at http://ic3.gov.
The IC3 is the central repository for the collection of internet complaints. The complaints are analyzed and forwarded to relevant investigative agencies. According to the FBI, the IC3 received more than 4,300 complaints related to these social engineering scams in 2021. The loss was more than $429 million. The website is filled with information on the latest internet scams and preventions on becoming a victim of internet fraud.
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.