Geek Speak: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 27, 2023 - April 02, 2023.
Geek Speak: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is
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In many ways, digital communication has altered romance. Love letters have become charming emails and truncated even more with flying kisses and red heart emojis, while trips to telephone booths have been replaced with video chats. While these technological advancements have afforded us the convenience of falling in love easily, it is also easier for many to fall prey to scams.

Romance scams are rife, but one that caught me — an ardent user of dating apps — off-guard was the “pig butchering” scam — an old cryptocurrency scheme that involves building a relationship, often romantic, with a victim before convincing them to make a fraudulent investment.

The scam, which originated in China, gets its name from the phrase “sh zh pán” or “pig butchering”, where perpetrators essentially fatten up their victims by gaining their trust before convincing them to move money into cryptocurrency, only to steal the money after.

Pig butchering was first reported in China in the early 2010s but resurfaced in 2018 as Chinese scammers took advantage of ethnically Chinese people interested in the gambling industry in Southeast Asia.The region became an attractive gambling destination for Chinese nationals because casino  gambling is illegal in China, reports the South China Morning Post.

Disguised in sheep’s clothing, these “wolves” prey on victims through social media or dating apps. Once they have set their eyes on a suitable target, or the proverbial “pig”, they engage in conversation and eventually cement a relationship.

Usually the charlatans, who are often clad in designer clothing, flaunt their lavish lifestyles, luxurious cars and wealthy demeanour, entice their victims using these disguises. Pig butchering sometimes includes job scams and human trafficking, where victims are forced to con other people online, usually to start another dating or romance scam, according to a news report.

Once a victim’s trust is gained, the swindler encourages the latter to trade cryptocurrencies by downloading an app or clicking on a seemingly unsuspicious link and offers to trade together to showcase how easy it is to make returns. All the while, a gang of scammers is controlling the fraudulent platform.

The “fattening of the pig” comes after victims believe that the trading platform is bona fide and invest large sums of money in the platform. By the time victims realise they have been trapped in a scam, their “new love interest” has vanished, along with the platform and their money.

Recovering the funds is almost impossible since the transactions take place on the blockchain, providing scammers with anonymity, and the lack of jurisdiction governing cryptocurrencies makes law enforcement difficult.

According to the US Federal Trade Commission, in 2022, nearly 70,000 people reported a romance scam and reported losses hit a staggering US$1.3 billion (RM5.83 billion). The median reported loss: US$4,400.

Reading about victims who have been duped of their life savings and worse, left heartbroken, has intensified my fear of engaging new people I meet online. Even before I was wiser about scams that happen on dating platforms, I had already suspected those who approached me of having an ulterior motive, which is highly counterproductive for an introvert with few chances of meeting new people organically.

But it is always better to be safe than sorry. So, I start by weeding out anyone who asks me for my personal details or whether I am keen to earn a side income, or sends me suspicious links without any explanation.

My guiding principle: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.