Get a "Hi" Text From a Stranger? Watch Out for a Scam That Could Cost You Millions
Just responding can put you at risk of a dangerous con.
From messaging apps to social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter, it's all too easy to interact with new people every day. But these connections come with risks, and stranger danger doesn't go away just because you're not meeting people in person. Sometimes even innocent interactions can be dangerous: You may be quick to brush off a hello from someone you don't know as a wrong number mistake, but it could be the start of a costly scam. Read on to find out why getting a "hi" text from a stranger is linked to a scam that costs victims millions.
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The FBI is warning about a scam that is becoming more prevalent.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a public service announcement on March 14, warning Americans about a spike in cryptocurrency investment scams.
"The schemes are socially-engineered and trust-enabled, usually beginning with a romance or confidence scam and evolving into cryptocurrency investment fraud," the agency explained. "Criminals use fictitious identities to develop relationships and build rapport with victims."
Zacharia Baldwin, a supervisory special agent for the FBI's financial crime squad in Miami, recently told NBC6 that one specific scam in this sector is growing faster than any other he's seen in the past 15 years. It's known as "Sha Zhu Pan," which is a Chinese phrase that roughly translates to "pig butchering."
This scam, which originated in Southeast Asia, combines investment fraud with romance relationship fraud to steal millions from victims, according to Baldwin. "Their goal is to take everything," he told NBC6.
The scheme often starts with a simple text from a stranger.
The pig butchering scam typically starts with a "hi" text from a stranger, CNBC reported. This may seem like something that is easy to ignore, but experts told CNBC that people underestimate how manipulative and persuasive con artists who engage in these schemes can be.
"Ten scams come by, and they're very clearly a scam," Matt Friedman, CEO of the non-profit organization Mekong Club, told CNBC. "But the 11th one, I may even fall for it."
As Baldwin further explained to NBC6, even responding "wrong number" to the stranger's text can get you caught up in the scam. Once you do so, the scammer will try to continue the conversation—usually by going for sympathy or attempting a friendly or romantic connection.
"The things they talk about, it is heartbreaking. About the future for them, doing things for their family," Baldwin said. "They're basically preying on these people's dreams."
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Then the scammer will convince a victim to turn to cryptocurrency.
The scammer may take weeks or months to build a relationship with their victim. But once they establish what seems like a sincere connection, they will begin the next stage of this scheme, where they offer to "teach" the victim cryptocurrencies or foreign currencies, CNBC reported.
As Friedman explained to the news outlet, these con artists are part of networks that operate fake trading platforms that look "exactly the way they should look," but are engineered to show victims nonexistent profits of 15 to 20 percent from their trades.
These fake profits tied together with romantic promises can make cryptocurrency investment seem well worth it to victims.
"[Scammers] will start talking about their life together, especially with the romance. 'Look, we made so much money, I can't wait to live with you. Our life is going to be set,'" Baldwin told NBC 6.
But once a victim tries to withdraw the money they've made from their investments, their accounts are shut down and the exchange platforms demand payment, CNBC reported. The scammer will encourage them to wire what little money they have left in order to release their cryptocurrency funds—and then they'll block the victim.
Victims have lost millions from pig butchering scams.
This scheme can have significant financial consequences for those who get trapped in it. According to the FBI, victims of pig butchering scams lose anywhere between a few thousands dollars to millions, with the average loss per person being around $50,000, NBC6 reported.
In 2022 alone, victims in the U.S. were defrauded of more than $2 billion dollars from these schemes.
The digital nature of this con makes it hard for officials to get stolen money back to victims. The Justice Department was only recently able to seize $112 million in its only public action against pig butchering scams, CNBC reported.
"We all know that investment scams are not new, but the use of digital currency to commit fraud presents new challenges to victims and to law enforcement trying to recover lost funds," U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada said in a statement.
Kenneth A. Polite, Jr., assistant attorney general for the DOJ's Criminal Division, added that officials are working to raise public awareness and help inform potential victims of what to watch for.
"Be wary of people you meet online; seriously question investment advice, especially about cryptocurrency, from people you have not met in person; and remember, investments that seem too good to be true, usually are," he said.