Romance scam is tricking people out of hundreds of thousands of dollars

Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Sara Schiff

“The most brutal thing about these scams is it preys on your vulnerability. By necessity, when you're in the dating pool, you have to open yourself up to meeting new people and experiencing new things. And that's part of how these kinds of scams work,” says Joel Khalili, crypto and tech reporter for Wired. Photo by Shutterstock.

The technology to lure people into romance scams is growing sophisticated, involving online dating apps, cryptocurrency, international crime organizations, and in some cases, modern-day slavery. With move prospective lovebirds turning to virtual interactions since the COVID pandemic, scammers have more vulnerable targets. 

Joel Khalili, a crypto and technology reporter for Wired, recently spoke to a 50-year-old Angeleno he calls Evelyn (pseudonym), who fell victim to “pig butchering.” She lost $300,000. The police and her bank weren’t able to help, so she reached out to Wired for help. 

“The implication is that the victim is fattened up and eventually slaughtered. In this context, Evelyn was approached by Bruce on a dating app, Hinge. … The two spent a number of weeks … talking about regular things. ‘What do you do? What do you like?’ And so on.”

After gaining her trust, Khalili says Bruce mentioned he was a partner in a venture capital firm and operated a cryptocurrency trading studio on the side. He offered to teach her how to invest in crypto, originally suggesting $4000. After she expressed discomfort in that sum, she suggested half that amount, $2000. 

The two traded together on a fake cryptocurrency exchange, Khalili explains, where Bruce told her what to buy and trade. At one point, her fake account contained about $500,000. The tides turned when she tried to withdraw a significant amount of that money.

“[Bruce] became defensive. He became unhelpful. She attempted to do it on her own without his help, and realized that the customer support was no help, and the website was suddenly faulty. That was what set the alarm bells ringing.”

Eventually, the scam drained Evelyn’s retirement savings. 

“The $300,000 in cryptocurrency that she had submitted to the platform, CEG, as soon as she had submitted it, it was long gone. But these pantomimes were another aspect of the scam, or another way of convincing you to stick around and always invest more money. The idea is essentially to drain someone completely before moving on to the next victim.”

The psychology of scams

Khalili says this is an example of human emotion “hijacking,” where victims are manipulated into making bad decisions. 

“The most brutal thing about these scams is it preys on your vulnerability. By necessity, when you're in the dating pool, you have to open yourself up to meeting new people and experiencing new things. And that's part of how these kinds of scams work.” 

The swindling also relies on confirmation bias, where the victim assumes that the person they’re connecting with is trustworthy. “Once that call is made, it can actually be quite difficult to convince them otherwise, and that gives the scammer latitude to push the boundaries in a way that otherwise they might not be able to fresh out the gate.”

Khalili points out that intelligence plays no role in whether or not someone is susceptible to these farces. In Evelyn’s case, she was fresh out of a two-decade relationship when she met Bruce.

“It is far more about the aptitude of the scammer when it comes to taking advantage of personal context. In Evelyn’s case, that was a recent and very nasty breakup. And so she was inherently vulnerable in that state.”

What makes the scams “all the more sad,” Khalili points out, is that the perpetrators are often victims of other crimes. 

“They're trafficked into places like Thailand, or Myanmar, or Nigeria, and various other countries in Africa and South Asia. They’re lured with promises of employment. But ultimately, they're forced into these call center setups and not allowed to leave. And once they're there, they're given a script, and their job is to contact them in this context over Hinge. But it could be over a number of mediums, right? It could be over email or messaging applications and so on.” 

A small percentage of “pig butchering” victims see their money again, Khalili explains. In Evelyn’s case, the LAPD said there wasn’t enough information to pursue a case, pointing to scammer data that was likely fake. 

“The reality is that experts in tracing cryptocurrency, they're more likely to be found in the private sector where the pay is better than they are in the public sector. And two, I think it's a resourcing issue. I think many police departments around the globe … are incredibly under-resourced. And the reality of scams like this one is that the volume is so large, it can be overwhelming.”