What are Pig Butchering Scams and How Do They Work?

“Jessica” cost him one million dollars.  

In an account to Forbes, one man described how he met “Jessica” online.i Readily, they formed a friendship. Turns out, “Jessica” was a great listener, particularly as he talked about the tough times he was going through. Through chats on WhatsApp, he shared the struggles of supporting his family and rapidly ailing father.  

The story telegraphs itself. Yes, “Jessica” was a scammer. Yet this scam put a new twist on an old con game. The man fell victim to a pig butchering scam — a scam that weaves together long strings of messages, cryptocurrency, and bogus investment opportunities. 

Many victims lose everything.  

“Jessica’s” victim broke down the scam, how it worked, and how he got roped in. It began with an introductory text in October that spun into a WhatsApp transcript spanning 271,000 words. Throughout, he shared his family and financial struggles. 

Then, “Jessica” offered hope. Investments that would turn a fast buck.  

“Jessica” walked him through several transactions on an app he was told to download. Small investments at first, yet increasingly larger. “Jessica” needed him to invest more and more, despite his reservations. Yet his balance grew and grew each time he followed her explicit directions.  

Then, the trap sprung. Twice. In November, he logged into the app and found a negative balance close to half a million dollars. “Jessica” reassured him that he could get it back, and then some. “Jessica” encouraged him to borrow. He did. From his bank and a childhood friend.  

Soon, he was back up to nearly $2 million. Or so he thought. In December, he logged into the app once again and found a negative balance of $1 million. His savings and borrowed money alike disappeared — straight into the hands of scammers. All the while, they manipulated the app with a plug-in that fabricated financial results. His whopping gains were actually massive losses. 

He’s far from the only victim of pig butchering. Last year, we brought you the story of “Leslie,” a retired woman who fell victim to a different form of the same scam. A so-called friend she met online directed her to invest her retirement funds for even more returns. Soon, a lonely yet otherwise sharp retiree found herself down $100,000.  

Victims like these find themselves among the thousands of people who fall for pig butchering scams each year. The problem is global in scope, costing billions of dollars each year. Yet as pig butchering represents a new type of scam, it uses some age-old tricks to separate people from their money.  

With that, pig butchering scams are preventable. Awareness plays a major role, along with several other steps people can take to keep it from happening to them. 

What’s a pig butchering scam? 

It’s a con game with a vivid name. Just as a livestock farm raises pork for profit, scammers foster long-term relationships with their victims for profit. The scammers start by taking small sums of money, which increase over time, until the victim finally gets “fattened up” and “butchered” for one final whopping sum. The term appears to have origins in the Chinese phrase zhu zai, meaning “to slaughter a pig.” 

What sets pig butchering scams apart from romance scams, elder scams, and other con games is cryptocurrency. Scammers lure their victims into investing in ventures, seemingly profitable ones because the scammers appear to make the same investments themselves. With great success. Victims then mirror those investments, yet the “market” is rigged. With phony sites and apps, the scammers point to big gains — which are all mocked up on the screen. Instead, the money goes straight to them. 

The scam follows a script, one that “Jessica” played out to the letter. You can see the steps. 

It starts out innocently enough. A text on the phone, a note on a messaging app, or a direct message on social media comes to the victim from out of the blue. It’s from someone they don’t know, and they might ask a simple question, like … 

“Is this John? We shared a tee time at the course last week and I have that extra club I said I’d give you.” 

“Hi, Sally. It’s me. Sorry I can’t make lunch today. Can we reschedule?” 

Or even as simple as … 


These “wrong number” texts and messages are anything but unintended. In some cases, victims get randomly picked. Blasts of texts and messages get sent to broad audiences, all in the hope that a handful of potential victims will reply. 

Yet, by and large, victims get carefully selected. And researched. The scammers work from a dossier of info gathered on the victim, full of tidbits harvested from the victim’s online info and social media profiles. Who puts together those dossiers? Often, it’s a large, organized crime operation. The scammer behind the messages is only one part of a much larger scamming machine, which we’ll cover in a bit. 

With that intel in hand, the scammers have their opening.  

After an introduction, the scammer kicks off a conversation. Over time, the conversations get personal. And those personal touches have a way of luring people in. Scammers pose as another person, such as “Jessica,” sprinkle things into the conversation like similar interests or family backgrounds. Anything that’s just enough to intrigue the victim and keep them chatting. 

From there, scammers play a long con game, building trust with their victims over time. Things tend to get increasingly personal. The scammer pumps the victim for more and more news of their life. What they’re worried about. What dreams they have. And in cases where the scam takes a romantic turn, how they’ll build a life together. 

Then, money comes into play. 

With a solid read on their victims and their lives, scammers drop hints about investment opportunities with big returns. The scammer rarely takes the money themselves. In fact, they almost always insist that the victim handles the money themselves. Instead, scammers lure their victims into using bogus apps that look like they support a legitimate trading platform. Yet they’re not. These apps act as a direct line to the scamming operation that the scammer’s working for. The money goes right into their pocket. 

Meanwhile, victims see something else entirely. Scammers give them step-by-step instructions that cover what to invest, where, and how to conduct transactions with cryptocurrency. The sums start small. First $5,000 or $10,000. The victim checks in with their new investment “app” and sees a great gain. The process repeats, as the sums get proverbially fatter and fatter. 

Finally, the truth comes out. Hard reality strikes when victims try to transfer their cryptocurrency out of their app. They can’t. There’s nothing there. The scammers manipulated the info on that bogus app. All the investments, all the transaction history, and all the earnings — fake. 

And because the scammers did their dirty work in cryptocurrency, that money is gone. Practically untraceable and practically impossible to get back.  

Clearly, “Jessica” followed this scam to the letter. However, it’s highly likely “Jessica” didn’t work alone. 

Pig butchering scams and organized crime. 

Organized crime props up the vast majority of pig butchering scams.  

The United States FBI points to several large-scale pig butchering operations, centered mostly in Southeast Asia.ii Other findings point to operations in Nigeria, where thousands of “Yahoo Boys” fire off romantic messages in their form of a pig butchering ring.iii  

In another account, a Reuters Special Report traced $9 million to an account registered to a well-connected representative of a Chinese trade group in Thailand — which hinted at yet broader collusion and fraud. 

These are big-time scams, backed by big-time operations. They run like them too. 

They have dev and design teams that create legit-looking finance apps. They have even further trappings of a large, legitimate company, including support, customer service, accounting, and the like to manage transactions. Then they have their front-line operatives, the people doing the texting and messaging.  

However, many of these front-line scammers do it against their will. 

An even darker aspect of pig butchering scams reveals itself when you discover who does the actual dirty work. As reported by the FBI, these front-line scammers are often human trafficking victims: 

Criminal actors target victims, primarily in Asia, in employment fraud schemes by posting false job advertisements on social media and online employment sites. The schemes cover a wide range of opportunities, to include tech support, call center customer service, and beauty salon technicians.  

Job seekers are offered competitive salaries, lucrative benefits, paid travel expenses as well as room and board. Often throughout the process, the location for the position is shifted from the advertised location. Upon job seekers’ arrival in the foreign country, criminal actors use multiple means to coerce them to commit cryptocurrency investment schemes, such as confiscation of passports and travel documents, threat of violence, and use of violence.iv 

The cruel fact of pig butchering scams is this: victims victimize victims. 

Meanwhile, organized crime operations get rich. One piece of academic research traced $75.3 billion to one suspected pig butchering network alone between 2020 and 2024.v  

In the U.S., the FBI points to $2.57 billion in cryptocurrency and pig butchering fraud reports in 2022.vi As always with such figures, many losses go unreported. That figure climbs much higher. Yet higher still when it accounts for victims worldwide. 

How to prevent pig butchering attacks. 

Effective pig butchering requires that dossier we talked about before. A profile of the victim that includes personal details siphoned from online sources. One move that can lower your risk of becoming a target involves trimming down your presence online.  

Steps include … 

Make your social media more private. Our new McAfee Social Privacy Manager personalizes your privacy based on your preferences. It does the heavy lifting by adjusting more than 100 privacy settings across your social media accounts in only a few clicks. This makes sure that your personal info is only visible to the people you want to share it with. It also keeps it out of search engines where the public can see it. Including scammers. 

Watch what you post on public forums. As with social media, scammers harvest info from online forums dedicated to sports, hobbies, interests, and the like. If possible, use a screen name on these sites so that your profile doesn’t immediately identify you. Likewise, keep your personal details to yourself. When posted on a public forum, it becomes a matter of public record. Anyone, including scammers, can look it up. 

Remove your info from data brokers that sell it. McAfee Personal Data Cleanup helps you remove your personal info from many of the riskiest data broker sites out there. Running it regularly can keep your name and info off these sites, even as data brokers collect and post new info. Depending on your plan, it can send requests to remove your data automatically.  

Delete your old accounts. Yet another source of personal info comes from data breaches. Scammers use this info as well to complete a sharper picture of their potential victims. With that, many internet users can have over 350 online accounts, many of which they might not know are still active. McAfee Online Account Cleanup can help you delete them. It runs monthly scans to find your online accounts and shows you their risk level. From there, you can decide which to delete, protecting your personal info from data breaches and your overall privacy as a result. 

How to stop a pig butchering attack. 

Whether you think you’re a target or think you know someone who might be, you can take immediate steps to stop a pig butchering attack. It begins with awareness. Simply by reading this blog article, you’ve gained an understanding of what these attacks are and how they work. Not to mention how costly they can be.  

If you think something sketchy is going on, take the following steps: 

Ignore it. 

It’s that simple. The fact that a lot of these scams start over WhatsApp and text messages means that the scammer either got your phone number online or they targeted your number randomly. In either case, they count on your response. And continued responses. In many cases, the initial contact is made by one person and viable candidates are passed on to more seasoned scammers. Bottom line: don’t interact with people you don’t know. No need to reply with “Sorry, wrong number” or anything like that. Ignore these messages and move on. 

When a stranger you’ve just met online brings up money, consider it a scam. 

Money talk is an immediate sign of a scam. The moment a person you’ve never met and got to know face to face asks for money, put an end to the conversation. Whether they ask for money, bank transfers, cryptocurrency, money orders, or gift cards, say no. And with pig butchering scams, never follow their directions for making a specific investment with specific tools. Doing so only funnels money into the scamming operation’s coffers. 

End the conversation. 

You might say no, and the scammer might back off — only to bring up the topic again later. This is a sign to end the conversation. That persistence is a sure sign of a scam. Recognize that this might be far easier said than done, as the saying goes. Scammers horn their way into the lives of their victims. A budding friendship or romance might be at stake. That’s what the scammers want you to think. They play off emotions. Hard as it is, end the relationship. 

Talk with trusted friends or family members. And look out for them too. 

Sometimes it takes an extra set of eyes to spot a scammer. Conversations with scammers won’t always add up. By talking about the people you meet online with someone you trust can help you see when it doesn’t. Given the way that scammers pull all kinds of strings on their victims, conversation — even to the point of showing messages to a friend — can help clear up any clouded judgment.  

With anyone you meet online, take things slowly. 

Alarming as pig butchering stories sound, not every new person you meet online is out to get you. For every “Jessica” out there, you’ll find far more genuine people who really do want to strike up a friendship with you. Yet as these scams increase, our guard must go up as well. 

It’s always been good advice to take a relationship slowly online. Scammers have long taken advantage of people who rush to provide personal details and hand over their trust. As with any confidence scam, look for people who want to have a video call with you, meet in person in a public place, or otherwise give you the chance to see that they’re a genuine person. And not a “Jessica.” 

Know those signs of a scam when you see them. And if they rear their head, act on them. 

[i] https://www.forbes.com/sites/cyrusfarivar/2022/09/09/pig-butchering-crypto-super-scam/?sh=7417db61ec8e

[ii] https://www.ic3.gov/Media/Y2023/PSA230522

[iii] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4742235

[iv] https://www.ic3.gov/Media/Y2023/PSA230522

[v] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4742235

[vi] https://www.ic3.gov/Media/PDF/AnnualReport/2022_IC3Report.pdf

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