Pig Butchering and Scam Centres: The crime behind the crime
Although not a new crime, romance scams like pig butchering, have been hitting the trad media and crypto news headlines for the last few months. This has been partly driven by documentaries such as the hit Netflix show The Tinder Swindler and also due to brave victims coming forward to share their stories and raise awareness to help protect others from facing a similar fate. In this piece I’m going to dive behind the scam itself and look at who the romance scammers are to reveal the crime behind the crime — industrial scam centres with cyber-slaves. Locations which house hundreds, if not thousands of people often forced under the threat of violence to conduct these scams and many who have been the victim of human trafficking.
What are Romance Scams?
Back in August 2022 I wrote a piece for Elliptic Connect on romance scams and pig butchering so I’d recommend reading that for a more comprehensive overview: https://hub.elliptic.co/analysis/how-romance-scams-work-in-crypto/
However for a shorter overview; romance scams are where the scammer will look to charm the victim and make them fall in love with them. This is all with the aim of eventually extracting money or assets from them.
It can start with a simple whatsapp messaging looking like a wrong number text, a dating profile created to catch your eye or a social media approach complimenting you on a recent post.
The term “pig butchering”, or Shāzhūpán, is used where the scammer looks to build up the relationship, often using heavily scripted approaches. This is the “fattening” part of the process. However, eventually the conversation will move towards finances and the scammer will introduce a “can’t miss” investment opportunity. Only this isn’t investment advice from a genuine love interest, this is a scam which will result in all the victim’s money being taken- the “slaughtering”.
The scams being proliferated at the moment most often contain a crypto angle with the investment opportunity involving the scammer making investments on behalf of the victim — but really just stealing the money, or directing them to use a website/application — which turns out to be fake and instead the scammer drains the victim’s deposited funds.
There are countless examples of victims losing their life savings, retirement funds, and money of friends and family due to being caught up in a love story gone wrong, and it’s not just small amounts. Many victims report losing hundreds of thousands of pounds, with some losing millions. The Global Anti-Scam Org’s latest statistics show the organisation alone has recorded a total loss of more than $285 million across 1,652 victims worldwide, at an average of $173,000 per victim: https://www.globalantiscam.org/post/statistics-of-crypto-romance-pig-butchering-scam
So who is behind these scams?
The Crime Behind the Crime
Whilst there are undoubtedly some lone wolf operators, similar to the Tinder Swindler, those operating Pig Butchering scams often do so on an industrial scale. Think rows of desks in huge tower blocks with workers who have targets to hit and manuals to operate from. Many of these operations transitioned from running legitimate businesses that didn’t survive during the pandemic, and many were already operating on the fringes of legality. One specific area which is known to harbour industrial scale scam operations is Sihanoukville in Cambodia. Before the pandemic it saw huge development with casinos, luxury hotels and first class amenities however travel restrictions and the 2019 online gambling ban in Cambodia brought the developing industry to a halt. Instead many of these businesses and locations pivoted to a life of scamming.
But it’s not just the activity that these operations are conducting which fits into the criminal bracket, the employees within these firms are often forced into the role of scammer against their will.
It could start with a job posting; an opportunity in another country paying a good or even amazing salary. There could be perks like free accommodation, education stipends and travel budgets to return home to family. However these carefully crafted advertisements are to lure in both the desperate and the ambitious. They target those who have lost their jobs in the pandemic, those who suffer under government corruption or poverty and those who simply wish for a better life for themselves and their families.
But really there’s no great opportunity and certainly none of the mentioned perks, instead it’s the start of what’s often a harrowing and traumatic experience of human trafficking.
The Human Trafficking of Forced-Scammers
There are stories of victims arriving at the airport only to have their passports taken and being bundled into vans to be driven to scam centres. There are other stories of victims being literally kidnapped off the street and being forced to work in scam compounds to ‘earn’ their freedom. The reports note that victims are mainly from mainland China, but also Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and America.
“ It was in April when Tan spotted an advert for a team leader role in Cambodia paying 12,000 Malaysian ringgit a month, around $2,700. He had heard rumors about scam centers, but felt reassured that the advert, posted by an alleged Malaysian digital marketing firm, was vetted by the job site. Two video interviews later, he was on a flight to Phnom Penh.Tan’s unease began almost immediately. He was met at the airport by four men who put him in their car and told him not to ask questions on the five-hour drive to Sihanoukville…. Tan says his passport was confiscated and gun-wielding men across the complex prevented him from leaving.”
There are also Telegram groups (some publicly viewable) where scam centres advertise people for sale (often those who are under-performing) and where they list bounties for anyone who has escaped. This provides a perverse ‘human marketplace’ and can lead to people being moved from scam centre to scam centre, often with the amount paid for them by the operators being added onto a ‘bill’ which the cyber slave is expected to work to ‘pay off’.
“Fan, a 22-year-old from China who was taken captive in 2021, was sold twice within the past year, he said. He doesn’t know if he was listed on Telegram. All he knows is that each time he was sold, his new captors raised the amount he’d have to pay to buy his freedom. In that way, his debt more than doubled from $7,000 to $15,500 in a country where the annual per capita income is about $1,600.”
However, not all scammers in the compound are forced into the role. Those who have escaped report that ~50% of people in the scam compounds are there by choice. However, with limited money making opportunities in some of the countries where these locations are based, and perhaps even fewer in the native countries the scammers are from, whilst they may not have been forced into the roles through violence, their economic situation could leave them with no choice but to join a life of scamming.
The Victim Becomes the Perpetrator
Whilst in the scam compounds the treatment of the victims varies, however most report physical violence being used to punish those who don’t hit their scamming targets and there are stories of torture and rape as well as news reports of mysterious deaths near some sites known to be imprisoning cyber slaves: https://vodenglish.news/thai-national-found-dead-at-poipet-casino/.
It’s therefore no surprise then that even those who are brought to the scam compounds against their will must eventually submit to following orders and attempt to scam people.
Cyber slaves who have escaped detail an ‘onboarding process’ where they’re given basic training and are required to familiarise themselves with the “scripts” — handbooks which detail what to say in order to charm victims and eventually swindle them out of their funds. They’re also trained on how to operate fake exchanges and gambling websites which are used to persuade victims that the ‘can’t miss investment opportunity’ is real. I’ve previously written about a rigged casino scam which certainly has markings of this type of platform.
How Many People are in Forced Labour within Scam Centres?
Whilst numbers of those affected are obviously hard to pin down, cyber slaves who have escaped often report entire office blocks being used to perpetrate pig butchering with hundreds if not thousands of people forced to run the scams. Best estimates pieced together from various sources point to the tens of thousands across scam centers in Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh, and sites in border regions Poipet and Bavet.
“According to the Khmer Times, one 10-building complex of high-rises in Sihanoukville, known as The China Project, holds between 8,000 to 10,000 people participating in various scams-a workforce that would generate profits around the $1 billion mark each year at $300 per worker per day.”
Imprisoned, Beaten, and Tased: The Trafficking Victims Being Forced to Scam the World
Chinese restaurants in Phnom Penh. Scam operations have proliferated in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar since the start of…
What Can be Done to Stop Scam Centres?
Whilst there have been some arrests and a handful of scam centres across Cambodia, Myanmar and China shut down. Unfortunately there is no organised and consolidated effort to stamp out the forced labour aspect or the crime being committed inside the scam centres. Opinions from those on the ground are that this is due to corruption in areas like Sihanoukville where they claim that local officials and police officers are bribed to turn a blind eye to the scam compounds, or due to countries like China who fail to accept that they have wide scale human trafficking.
Fortunately there are NGOs and charities who are working tirelessly to help cyber slaves escape from scam compounds, and to raise awareness of both pig butchering and forced labour in scam compounds. However this can be a risky endeavour with the criminal organisations running the scam centres targeting those who they see as disrupting their profits, and there are even reports of NGO workers being jailed by authorities for spreading “incitement and false declaration” after releasing victim statements. This falls inline with countries not wanting to be seen on the world stage as housing these criminal activities, but sadly instead of seeking to bring those who proliferate the crimes to justice, they often just deny the existence of the crimes themselves.
If you think you’re a cyber slave or victim of pig butchering, or know someone who is, then directing them to https://www.globalantiscam.org/ is a good first step.