When Brett Vincent made a roughly $200,000 investment in cryptocurrencies through a person he befriended on LinkedIn in the fall of 2021, promised profits of up to 20%, he had little knowledge of the technology.
Just a few weeks later, the 46-year-old logistics manager outside of Memphis discovered what a costly error he had made when his crypto investment account was frozen.
Since then,Vincent has been playing catch-up. His later investigation discovered that tens of thousands of people were conned by the cryptocurrency investment scheme that got him. Experts estimate that it has cost them billions of dollars, far exceeding earlier projections from federal agencies.
According to a recent research that digital asset intelligence company Inca Digital made, victims lost more than $500 million on only one of the three blockchains targeted by con artists in the final nine months of 2022 alone.
Ian Schade, a blockchain intelligence analyst at TRM Labs, says that the total cost of the frauds over the past two years has likely exceeded billions of dollars.
The term “pig-butchering” refers to the scam technique of gaining trust with quick early gains that are then used by con artists to entice further investments, fattening them up like pigs before the slaughter. Through dating apps or other websites, most recently Airbnb, the con artists meet potential victims.
However, criminals are getting away with more than even the majority of law enforcement professionals realize.
Even as the cryptocurrency market has been in “winter season” for a year now, which has been made worse by the collapse of the trading exchange FTX and other well-known companies, scammers have persisted in picking up new victims and making eye-popping profits, according to the statistics. Inca Digital examined a subset of the fraud, gathering information from eight major exchanges that con artists use to entice victims and focusing exclusively on a piece of the cryptocurrency they target.
What “big-butchering” means
The expression “pig-butchering” refers to the following type of scenario:
1. The con artist connects with a prospective victim via a dating app or another social media site.
2. Before recommending that a potential victim invest in cryptocurrencies, the con artist first creates trust with them by cultivating a personal connection.
3. The con artist persuades the victim to create an account on a trading website like Coinbase so they may start making investments.
4. The fraudster instructs the victim to move their cryptocurrency to a different investing platform, which is really a phony platform under the fraudster’s control.
5. The con artist persuades the victim to keep investing in cryptocurrencies by urging them to take their money out to show that they are doing it legally.
6. The con artist prods the victim to make increasing investments.
7. After the victim has made a substantial profit, the con artist grabs the cryptocurrency and changes it to fiat money before disappearing from sight.
8. There isn’t much the victim can do to get their money back by the time they discover what has happened. There is nothing that U.S. officials can do because these con artists often operate in China and Southeast Asia.
If it hasn’t already, it will in the next few years surpass all other internet scams in terms of cash lost, according to Andrew Frey, a forensic financial analyst with the U.S. Secret Service.
Federal law enforcement and the major cryptocurrency exchanges that fraudsters use to conduct these scams appear to be lagging in taking action, despite the fraud’s expanding scope. Federal investigators are currently figuring out how to restrict the plan and have not yet arrested any suspect architects, a process they claim is made more difficult by the fact that its offenders are mostly found in China and Southeast Asia.
Because they can get away with it, scammers have aligned incentives, according to Inca Digital CEO Adam Zarazinski. The police are paying notice, but possibly not as much as they should. The providers of cryptocurrency services are somewhat attentive, but not sufficiently.
A few self-trained amateur investigators and local law enforcement officers are stepping up to create their own grassroots reaction because they see a gap in the system.
Vincent is assisting in driving that effort. He oversees investigations in his free time for the Global Anti-Scam Organization, or GASO, which supports those who have been the victims of pig-butchering and is run by 40 volunteers who have also fallen victim to scams. He has become a valuable resource for federal law enforcement officers, and in November he gave a presentation at a conference sponsored by the Justice Department’s task force on countering cryptocurrency crime, the National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment.
Local law enforcement officers are currently helping victims in every way they can. A deputy district attorney in Santa Clara, California named Erin West has pioneered the use of tracing tools and cutting-edge legal techniques to locate, collect, and recover stolen cryptocurrency. She is now sharing these techniques with prosecutors around the nation.
In December, West achieved her first victories in her jurisdiction by recovering more than $2 million in fraudulent cryptocurrency and giving back assets to 10 fraud victims. This is a step in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go, she acknowledged. There are an incalculable number of victims who have been crushed by this atrocity and are still unable to get any kind of help who are not being heard.
Jonathan Scharf, an assistant district attorney in Queens County, New York, admitted that victims’ rights are a challenge for law enforcement at all levels. He declared, “Anybody who tells you otherwise is being incredibly dishonest. Our success rate is not fantastic.
Federal law enforcement officers made their first arrests of suspects for money laundering from pig butchering late last year. They also seized seven domain names that fraudsters were using to target victims.
The National Security Council’s former director of cybersecurity and secure digital innovation, Carole House, wrote in an email that law enforcement and banking agencies need more resources to find and take down these criminal networks. She said that foreign allies must do more to assist the United States. These networks operate internationally. The US can’t handle this by itself.
The fraud’s structure, which mixes aspects of conventional romantic and investment scams into what the Secret Service’s Frey refers to as a “super-scam,” makes the task more difficult.
Fraudsters frequently invest months in gaining their victims’ trust. After establishing a relationship and switching the conversation to another messaging app from a social networking platform, the con artist will mention their success with cryptocurrency trading and promise to teach the potential victim how to make their own money.
Fraudsters instruct newbies to cryptocurrency on how to open an account with a reputable trading platform, like Coinbase or Crypto.com, and instruct them to deposit $1,000 or $2,000 there. They then instruct them to transmit their cryptocurrency to an account that appears to be another investment site but is actually managed by the con artist.
The con artist takes the victim through a few early deals that seem to generate healthy profits before encouraging them to test the business by withdrawing some money. Many victims would overextend themselves to invest in the hoax, even taking out loans against their homes, because they are convinced that enormous returns are easily achievable.
Once con artists have amassed a sizeable sum from a victim, they often act quickly to exchange the taken cryptocurrency for fiat money. There isn’t much that U.S. officials can do because the majority of the scam’s perpetrators are based in Southeast Asia, sometimes outside the range of federal agents. Victims may not become aware that they have been cheated for weeks or more before reporting the crime.
Using data from known scammer-controlled cryptocurrency wallets, Inca Digital calculated their estimate. The business examined the transactions in those accounts before creating an algorithm to locate other similar wallets. And it followed the bitcoin that went through those accounts in two directions: back to the major cryptocurrency trading platforms where the victims had originally purchased it, and forward to other platforms and services the con artists employ to obfuscate their tracks. The funds then arrive at a different exchange, usually a global player, where thieves exchange the cryptocurrency for fiat money.
Customers of the major cryptocurrency exchanges lost $506 million in the last nine months of 2022, according to Inca Digital, a company that performs crypto analysis for businesses and governmental organizations. Only a piece of the scheme was revealed by the analysis. Although the scammers also target the bitcoin and tron blockchains, it only concentrated on the ethereum blockchain.
Victim losses have been estimated at lower amounts by federal agencies. Crypto-romance scams cost victims $429 million in losses in 2021, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, which received complaints about them. In 2021, the most recent year it examined, the Federal Trade Commission estimated that customers globally lost $547 million to romance scams.
The exchanges claim they are fighting scams by engaging with law authorities, disabling access to their platforms for accounts known to be used by scammers, and warning users of potential dangers. Yet they point out that ultimately, customers are responsible for their own safety.
According to Lisa Johnson, a representative for Coinbase, “it is the user’s obligation to check the integrity of any investment they are making off our platform.” Although though Coinbase uses a variety of methods to find and prohibit unauthorized addresses linked to fraud and other illegal conduct, it is difficult to foresee every address used by external bad actors.
Recently, Crypto.com incorporated a technology created by Inca Digital to quickly identify frauds and warn potential victims before they make sizable investments. The exchange, according to company spokeswoman Victoria Davis, takes further measures to protect users, such as regular updates of blocked accounts.
The platform also emphasizes the need for its users to exercise caution, as pig-butchering victims lost about $300 million on it over the last nine months of 2022, according to Inca data, the largest of any exchange it studied. Security is a shared duty, according to Davis.
Vincent is continuing to strive for justice despite the mounting victim losses. He went to Bangkok in late January to meet with representatives from the US Embassy, police enforcement, and a man who had escaped from a complex in Myanmar where he claimed he had been compelled to perpetrate the hoax.
I might be the only hope some victims have. I also want to see the criminals imprisoned. That’s what fuels the flame I feel inside.